Summer is tick season and Lyme disease is not the only malady the insidious creatures transmit. New Jersey, along with other states in the Northeast, has seen an increase in the tick-borne parasitic disease babesiosis over the past few years.
Reported cases of the malaria-like disease increased threefold from 2008 to 2009, the most recent year for which numbers are available. The numbers are still low—156 cases—but federal and local health officials say they are tracking the trend and working to find out what is causing the increase.
“Between 2008 and 2009, we have seen a threefold increase, so we are monitoring the situation and trying to identify the reasons for this event,” said Andria Apostolou of the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.
The parasite that causes the disease is carried by mice and other rodents. It spreads to humans through infected ticks, the same kind that carry Lyme disease. Symptoms of babesiosis are flu-like; they include fatigue, fever, muscle aches and headache. It can be treated with antibiotics and antimalarial drugs, but can be fatal for those with weakened immune systems. Seven patients infected with the disease died in New Jersey between 2006 and 2009.
The same precautionary measures that reduce the risk of contracting Lyme disease work for babesiosis: stick to the center of the trail when hiking, use repellant on skin and clothing, wear long solid and light-colored clothing and check for ticks when returning indoors.
It is possible to acquire babesiosis through blood transfusion, though it is rare. The FDA said it is developing a screening test for donated blood, but it will be years before it is implemented.