Lyme disease is the usual culprit behind the Vineyard’s dread of ticks and tick-borne disease. Tularemia can also be contracted from tick bites, though it is more notorious for the life-threatening consequences of inhaling it (it’s a particular menace to mow crews). Both Lyme and Tularemia are caused by bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, and Francisella tularensis respectively. The bacteria run amok through the body until antibiotics like doxycycline, or the body’s immune system, or the two in unison, can eradicate them. But Islanders should be informed that there’s another type of malady contractible from local ticks, caused by an altogether different life form.
Babesiosis [buh-bee-zee-oh-sis], is an infection caused by Babesia, a tiny protozoa not dissimilar to the paramecia studied under microscopes in high school biology classes. Like the tick that introduces Babesia, the protozoa are parasites interested in blood. Babesia are somewhat of an anomaly in our northern climate. Most creatures of their type are found in tropical or subtropical environments, like the species of plasmodium behind malaria. In fact, babesiosis is often misdiagnosed as malaria. The ailments share many of the same symptoms: fatigue, and flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, sweats, headache, body aches, loss of appetite, and nausea.
In the spring of 2013, those symptoms began plaguing longtime MV Times staffer Tony Omer, when a tick bite he never knew he’d received unleashed Babesia into his circulatory system. Mr. Omer, an avid cyclist and tennis player, noticed he was fatiguing more easily than usual. Soon, his endurance was halved, and a constant feeling of malaise set in. Mr. Omer made an appointment with his doctor, thought he suspected his condition might be psychosomatic or age-related. The appointment, which included a Lyme test, unearthed little. Mr. Omer returned home and became weaker still.
“I’d get winded from a flight of stairs,” said Mr. Omer, “I felt like I had hay or cotton in my lungs.”
Mr. Omer returned to his doctor for a lung x-ray. It showed nothing, but still the doctor took the precaution of placing Mr. Omer on antibiotics. Even with medicine, he continued to feel fatigued Then, his urine changed to the color of carrot juice. When Mr. Omer alerted his doctor, she immediately requested a babesiosis test.
The telltale hue of the urine meant Mr. Omer was expelling his own red blood cells, which had been murdered en masse, torn open from the inside out by Babesia.
Unlike Borrelia burgdorferi, which corkscrews its way into several regions of the body and, though not empirically proven, is believed by many to linger in the body and cause debilitative chronic conditions, Babesia’s attack is specific. Once purged, Babesia is not believed to re-emerge.
“Babesia microti parasites live inside red blood cells,” said Dr. Barbara Herwaldt in an email to The Times. Dr. Herwaldt is a Medical Epidemiologist in the Parasitic Disease Branch of the Division of Parasitic Diseases and Malaria at the Center for Disease Control’s Center for Global Health.
“Babesia microti is not known to infect other cells in the body,” said Dr. Herwaldt. “In contrast to some types (species) of malaria parasites, B. microti is not known to have dormant stages in the liver that can ‘reactivate’ and cause relapses.”
Dr. Herwaldt said most patients respond well to the available treatments for Babesiosis, which should be diagnosed and treated by a qualified healthcare provider. “Each patient’s case and care should be individualized. CDC is happy is assist health departments and physicians who have questions in such regards.”
For Mr. Omer, a regimen of antibiotics followed by heavy supplements of iron and B12 helped to eradicate the infection and replenish his blood cells. Other Babesiosis patients are sometimes treated with quinine, an old hedge against malaria the British purportedly found so hard on the palate that they cut it with gin, introducing the gin and tonic. Though he is now cured of Babesiosis, Mr. Omer confesses it took him down a peg. He hasn’t felt 100% since the illness.
Protecting against babesiosis is no different than protecting against Lyme. Ticks are the vector. They may be concentrated in certain regions of the Island, but they can be encountered anywhere. To avoid tick bites, be wary of high grass and narrow paths where the foliage brushes you as you pass. Check yourself periodically when outdoors, especially if you landscape or garden. Examine yourself thoroughly when you come home to shower. And don’t consider a frost, or even snow, as proof against ticks: no matter the temperature of the air, a deer or a mouse’s back is always warm.
As for Babesiosis warning signs and symptoms, many of them mimic influenza, malaria, or Lyme. Another strong indicator of Babesiosis is anemia. However, don’t count on finding an attached tick on you as evidence: Babesiosis symptoms can arise without victims realizing they have been bitten. Distressful symptoms of any sort should be disclosed to your doctor as soon as possible. Only your healthcare provider can give a proper diagnosis.