Blood Cell Parasites?
Babesiosis is one diagnosis that could make anyone cringe! A condition where a parasite infiltrates the red blood cells and wreaks havoc on the body? Hard pass. Unfortunately, every year, a couple of thousand people in the U.S. suffer from it. It is potentially fatal, but because so few cases are reported, there is still much we don’t know about the disease.
Babesiae are protozoan parasites that take over healthy red blood cells. As they multiply, more and more red blood cells are hijacked and destroyed to fuel their reproduction. This can lead to fatal health conditions— especially in the elderly, immune-compromised, or those either born without a spleen or those who have had theirs surgically removed.
How It Spreads
In humans, the transmission usually happens in one of three ways. Babesiae can be spread by deer ticks, through blood transfusions, or during pregnancy from mother to baby. Usually, they are transmitted via deer ticks. Now, most of us probably think of Lyme disease as being associated with ticks, not protozoan hitchhikers. Unfortunately enough, babesiosis can co-occur with Lyme disease, making the prognosis even scarier.
Relatively healthy individuals may not experience obvious symptoms, and so the presence of a babesia or growing babesiae colony may go completely unnoticed. Others may experience severe symptoms. Symptoms of babesiosis can first appear anywhere from 1-9 weeks after exposure. The condition may present flu-like symptoms such as fever, headaches, fatigue, chills, and body aches. Additional symptoms may include shortness of breath, hemolytic anemia, and heart or renal failure.
Babesiae tend to be endemic to certain areas, particularly the northeastern coast of the U.S. as well as the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota. We first became aware of the possibility of transmission through blood infusions back in 1979. However, it wasn’t until 2011 that the CDC opened a case surveillance system for states to report known cases. Blood banks ask screening questions to eliminate those who have had a confirmed case of certain blood conditions such as babesiosis. However, since many healthy individuals never experience symptoms or receive a diagnosis, some blood donors with babesia may unknowingly slip through. The FDA has made recommendations for certain high-risk states to perform blood testing in hopes of weeding out most of these cases. Until all blood banks can implement effective screening and testing measures, we will continue to see babesia cases resulting from transfusions.
Pro Tip: Avoid Tick Bites
While the thought of getting infected with babesiae from a blood transfusion is disturbing, you are much more likely to acquire it through a tick bite. However, there are a few measures that you can take to help protect yourself from being bitten by a babesia-carrying tick. Take a look at the following precautionary list:
- Wear long sleeves, pants, and boots if you are entering into wooded or bushy areas.
- Apply repellants to your skin and clothing.
- Wear light-colored clothing to help you see if a tick is catching a ride on your garments.
- Tuck your pants into your socks to help protect your ankles from exposure.
- Shower and inspect your skin thoroughly. Younger deer ticks can be as small as a poppyseed, so you’ll want to be very thorough about this.
- If you do spot a tick, remove it promptly and clean the affected area. The longer the tick stays on the higher the chance that it will transmit disease.
Take precautions when you can. If you think you may have been bitten by a tick, make sure to report it to your doctor.
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