Experts are sounding the alarm over a tick-borne disease, similar to malaria, that kills up to 20% of people it infects.
Human cases of babesiosis have more than doubled in a decade in the United States, a trend some say is linked to climate change and the clearing of more land for development.
Only about 2,500 cases are officially diagnosed each year, but scientists warn that many likely go undetected because doctors don’t know how to test for it.
Infections are increasing in the Midwest, Northeast and West and are more common during the summer months when ticks are active.
This week, experts also warned of rising cases of another tick-borne disease, the Powassan virus, which can cause lifelong brain damage and disabilities.
Babesios disease is caused by microbes carried by the deer tick (left) and the winter tick (right). The former is active during the summer months while the latter comes out in the fall
The map above shows the US states that have reported cases of babesiosis and the prevalence of the disease. It is endemic in the northeastern, midwestern and western states, and has also been recorded in the south
This graph, provided by the CDC, shows how many cases of babesiosis have been recorded in the United States by year. In 2011 there were just over 1,000 cases, but now that figure has risen to 2,500
Researchers from the University of California, Riverside claim to have decoded the first-ever high-quality genome of one of the disease-causing microbes.
They say it will help develop tools to diagnose the disease and new treatments for the disease which can also cause organ failure and an enlarged spleen and liver.
Babeses are single-celled organisms that normally circulate between ticks and deer, but can also infect humans through tick bites.
Patients show symptoms one to six weeks after the bites that initially resemble malaria, including fever, headache and muscle aches.
But in severe cases, they can progress to organ failure, a swollen spleen or liver, and anemia, caused by the pathogen destroying red blood cells.
Estimates suggest that around 0.5% of all patients die from the disease. But among the elderly and immunocompromised, the death rate can be as high as 20%.
The disease can be treated with antibiotics and antiparasitics like azithromycin and atovaquone.
About 2,500 people are diagnosed with the infection each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up from just over 1,000 from the previous decade.
But last month, the agency warned that the disease was becoming more prevalent in eight of the ten states monitoring the infection, particularly in the northeast.
But many cases are missed because patients may be co-infected with Lyme disease. Experts also say that while most doctors know about Lyme disease, few know about babesiosis or the warning signs to look out for.
Healthy people who are infected are also unlikely to develop symptoms.
Columbia University scientists claim that up to 20% of elderly patients who catch the disease die from it.
There are two types of microbes behind the disease named babesia microti – which is spread by the deer tick during the summer months – and B. duncani – spread by the winter tick in the fall and early winter. winter.
For their study, the researchers analyzed the genetics of B. duncani for the first time.
They also constructed its 3D structure using a computer, finding it to closely resemble the malarial parasite or Plasmodium falciparum.
They said it may have helped him develop ways to dodge immunity.
Dr Stefano Lonardi, a geneticist involved in the research, said: ‘Once the genome is assembled and annotated it can provide valuable information such as how genes are organized, which genes are transcribed during infection and how the pathogen avoids the host. immune system.’
The disease is caused by a single-celled organism that attacks red blood cells when it infects humans
Cell expert Dr Karine Le Roch, who led the research, said: “Our analysis of the data revealed that the parasite evolved new classes of multigene families, allowing the parasite to evade the host’s immune response. .”
The team now plans to study how B. duncani survives inside a tick to help develop new treatments.
Last month, the CDC said cases had increased in eight of the ten states that were reporting babesiosis cases from 2011 to 2019. The increase was 25%.
At the same time, cases of Lyme disease – which can be mistaken for the disease – have increased by 44%.
The disease has also become endemic in three new states: Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Previously, it was considered endemic only in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin.
Megan Swanson, epidemiologist at the agency, said: “Nine years of data show an increase in tick-borne diseases in parts of the United States that previously saw few cases.”
Babesiosis was first detected in the United States in 1969.
The study was published in the journal Nature Microbiology.
WHAT IS LYME DISEASE?
Lyme disease is caused by bacteria transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks.
The most common symptoms of the disease are fever, headache, fatigue, and a skin rash called erythema migrans.
The disease can usually be treated with several weeks of oral antibiotics.
But if left untreated, the infection can spread to joints, heart and nerve symptoms and be fatal.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU GET INFECTED?
During the first three to 30 days of infection, these symptoms may occur:
- Muscle and joint pain
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Erythema migrans (EM) rash
The rash occurs in about 80% of infected people.
It can expand up to 12 inches (30 cm), eventually disengaging and giving the appearance of a target or “bull’s eye”.
Later symptoms of Lyme disease include:
- Severe headaches and stiff neck
- Additional rashes
- Arthritis with joint pain and swelling
- Facial or Bell’s palsy
- Heart palpitations
- Short term memory problems
- Neuralgic pain
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