Current study testing new treatment for babesiosis

A new anti-malaria drug could be an answer to the tick-borne illness.

Deer tick —courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A study conducted by 60 Degrees Pharma, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is currently underway to test a possible new treatment for the “rapidly emerging” tick-borne illness of babesiosis. The disease, originating in Nantucket back in 1969, can most commonly cause fever and muscle and joint pain, according to CDC reports.

“We would say babesiosis is the second most common tick-borne disease that folks get,” said Patrick Roden-Reynolds, head of the M.V. Tick Program. 

Although many people do not feel sick, some may experience flulike symptoms, said Lea Hamner, Barnstable County epidemiologist. And for certain people — those with a weaker immune system or serious health issues — it can be life-threatening. 

“If someone is experiencing flulike symptoms during the spring and summer, especially on the Vineyard, they should see their healthcare provider for treatment,” said Hamner. A blood test is typically administered to diagnose the disease.

While babesiosis is currently treated with a seven-to-10-day course of drugs — a combination of azithromycin and atovaquone most commonly — the current study, which is estimated to run for about the next year, will test to see if tafenoquine, also used to treat malaria, could aid in treatment. 

The combination of drugs used now was previously demonstrated to be effective in treating malaria, leading to its use in treating babesiosis, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. A combination of clindamycin and quinine is another pairing used against babesiosis, similarly originating as malaria treatment. 

While azithromycin and clindamycin are repurposed antibiotic drugs, antibiotics alone are seemingly not effective in treating basebiosis. 

“Most tick-borne illnesses are bacteria,” said Roden-Reynolds, “but babesiosis is a protozoan, so it takes completely different medication.” Protozoa are single-celled organisms like bacteria, but larger. 

Even with what is currently used to treat babesiosis, patients can still relapse. And now, through a “randomized, placebo-controlled trial,” 60 Degrees Pharma is testing the possibility of new, potentially more effective treatment.

“Saying definitively that it’s increasing is hard,” said Hamner about babesiosis case numbers. However, it is known, she said, that Dukes County and Nantucket have consistently had the highest rate of babesiosis in the state.

Roden-Reynolds estimates that 10 to 15 percent of ticks here on the Vineyard carry babesiosis. Deer ticks are the carriers, though not every deer tick will carry the disease. 

If bitten by an infected tick, transmission of babesiosis can occur within 16 hours, according to Roden-Reynolds. This is quicker than the 24 to 48 hours of tick attachment it takes for transmission of Lyme disease. 

Hamner warns that it is possible to contract both Lyme and babesiosis simultaneously, from “a coinfected deer tick,” or “multiple infected deer ticks.” 

“It’s important to get tested for babesiosis too, to ensure proper treatment,” she said.

When it comes to prevention methods, said Roden-Reynolds, it’s best to wear long sleeves and long pants, along with long socks and closed-toe shoes, especially if spending extended periods of time outdoors. Permethrin spray is the recommended tick repellent.


  1. Thank you for raising awareness about Babesiosis! For more information about tickborne diseases please check out the Martha’s Vineyard Boards of Health website: . You can also find us in-person at events throughout the summer. Check out the calendar on the website to see where we’ll be next:
    – Lea Hamner, epidemiologist, InterIsland Public Health Collaborative & Barnstable County

Comments are closed.