Babesiosis: Backyard Killer Mimics Malaria and Is on Rise

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Preventing Tick Bites is Important

Since last July, the Rhode Island Blood Center has screened blood as part of an investigational new drug (IND) use protocol sanctioned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"We think [babesiosis] is under reported and we don't know how many real cases there are," said Dr. Carolyn Young, the center's vice president and chief medical officer.

"We select about 3,000 units of blood that would be intended to go to neonates and pediatric sickle cell patients and those with pediatric thalassemia," she said.

So far, no cases of the disease have emerged among these babies and the IND data will be used to support an application for potential FDA-licensed test.

Diagnosing the disease can be difficult, according to Dr. William Schaffner, head of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical School in Tennessee

"It's a pretty darn unusual infection," he said. "It's the sort of illness known to infectious disease specialists, but most general doctors are clueless because until recently, it was an oddity."

Laboratory technicians can spot the "bug" under the microscope and often mistake it for malaria, according to Schaffner. "It takes a very sophisticated eye to distinguish the two."

"For the most part, it doesn't know how to make us sick," he said. "If you are young and healthy you may never know you have an infection and it comes and goes all by itself."

Disease symptoms can include chills and sweats, headache, muscle and joint pain, loss of appetite and the tell-tale fever.

"They go back to the patient history and delve into the patient's family or friends, who say he went fishing or golfing or hiking in the woods, clearing brush on the estate," said Schaffner.

Treatment includes a combination of selected antibiotics and quinine, a malaria drug.

Preventing tick bites in the first place is the key, according to Schaffner. Use tick repellant consistently, even in the backyard, if there is brush.

Have a friend or family member check for ticks on the body -- "Your back, hair and hairline at the neck and always check under your arms," he said. "The belt line and the groin are favorite places ticks like to crawl.

If a tick is found, "take a tissue and grasp the tick firmly and gently pull," he said. "Don't jerk."

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