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Nasty Infectious Diseases You Want To Avoid - Babesiosis

Updated on November 30, 2008

Babesiosis (babesiasis), is a rare, occasionally fatal, disease caused by a tick-borne microorganism similar to both Lyme disease and human granulocytic ehrlichiosis (HGE). Also known as Nantucket Fever, it is most often seen in the elderly and those with impaired immune systems. Severe cases have been diagnosed in those who have had their spleen removed prior to exposure.

Most cases of babesiosis have been reported in summer and fall in the northeastern United States, especially Nantucket, Shelter Island in New York, and other offshore islands in New England. However, cases have recently been identified in the upper Midwest, the Pacific Coast states, and Europe. A related species has caused a babesiosis-like illness in Washington and California.

Cause - Babesiosis is caused by protozoa similar to those that cause malaria (the species Babesia microti); it is passed via the bite of ticks; the most common is the species Ixodes dammini which is also known as Ixodes scapularis. The tick is carried by meadow voles, mice, and deer and is generally called the "blacklegged deer tick." A tick picks up the parasites by feeding on an infected mouse and then proceeds to pass the infection on by biting a new host, which could possibly be a human. In order to pass on the parasites, the tick must be attached to the skin for at least 36 hours. Once it has entered into the bloodstream, the Babesia microti enters a red blood cell, reproduces by the process of cell division, and manages to destroy the cell itself. Humans who are infected with Babesia microti can produce antibodies which can be of assistance in diagnosing the infection. The disease can also be transmitted via contaminated blood transfusions. The protozoa causing babesiosis was first identified by Roman bacteriologist Victor Babes, for whom the organism and the disease was named.

Symptoms - Babesiosis typically causes mild illness in otherwise healthy people, but it can be overwhelming to those with impaired immune systems. Symptoms appear within 1 to to 12 months after infection and include fever, fatigue, and hemolytic anemia lasting from several days to several months. A person may also have the disease with no symptoms at all. It is not known if a past infection renders a patient immune.

Diagnosis - Molecular tests are being developed, but currently the disease is diagnosed by microscopic examination of blood. The primary diagnostic test for babesiosis is to identify the parasites directly on a Giemsa-stained thin blood smear. An elevated level of suspicion is a predetermining factor in order to diagnose babesiosis, as the disease develops only in patients who have resided within an endemic area or have received a contaminated blood transfusion within the preceding two months, which makes this particular aspect of the medical history extremely vital.

Treatment - Standardized treatments have not been developed; however, a combination of antimalarial drugs as quinine and an antibiotic (clindamycin) are usually the drugs chosen by physicians treating the disease.

Prevention - The spread of babesiosis can be curtailed with the control of rodents around houses and the use of tick repellents.


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