Infectious Disease Specialists See Increase in Babesiosis Cases in New York


Westchester Medical Center infectious disease specialists report an increase in the potentially severe tick-borne disease Babesiosis in New York's Lower Hudson Valley over a 10-year period.

Babesiosis, a rare and occasionally fatal tick-borne disease caused by microscopic parasites known as Babesia which infect red blood cells, is on the rise in the Lower Hudson Valley according to the New York State Department of Health, including the counties of Westchester, Putnam, Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Sullivan and Rockland.

Babesiosis is a malaria-like disease most commonly transmitted by infected deer ticks. It is transmitted in the same way as Lyme disease and Ehrlichiosis and may occur in conjunction with these other diseases. It can also be transmitted by blood transfusions.

"For the most part human babesiosis is fairly uncommon, but reported cases particularly here in the Lower Hudson Valley have been on the rise recently," said Dr. Gary Wormser, chief of infectious diseases at Westchester Medical Center. "The number of cases reported annually in just this area has increased from around 5 in 2001 to nearly 120 in 2008. Despite the large number of Lyme disease cases in the Lower Hudson Valley for many years, babesiosis has only occurred in this area since 2001. Some patients can have asymptomatic infection that is self-limited. Patients who are older, are immunodeficient or have had their spleens removed in the past are most susceptible to more severe clinical presentations."

The parasite infects the red blood cells and causes anemia. Symptoms may begin with tiredness, loss of appetite, and a general ill feeling. As the infection progresses, these symptoms may be followed by fever, profuse, drenching sweats, muscle aches, and headache. The symptoms can last from several days to several months. Effective treatments are available, and most people who are infected with Babesia microti respond well.

Complications of the infection include very low blood pressure, liver problems, severe hemolytic anemia (a breakdown of red blood cells), and kidney failure. In life-threatening cases, exchange blood transfusion is performed. In this procedure, the infected red blood cells are removed and replaced with fresh ones.

In North America, the disease is most notably found in eastern Long-Island, Shelter Island, Block Island, coastal Connecticut and the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard off of the coast of Massachusetts but can be found in other states and locations.

"Babesiosis should be considered an emerging infectious disease," adds Wormser. "And while there is no vaccine to prevent it in human beings, you can reduce your risk of contracting it by taking a few simple precautions, especially outdoors in known tick infested areas."

Tips for preventing babesiosis:

-- During outside activities, in known or potential tick infested locations wear long sleeves and long pants tucked into socks.

-- Insect repellents containing the compound DEET can be used on exposed skin except for the face and hands, but they do not kill ticks and are not 100 percent effective in preventing tick bites.

-- Products containing permethrin kill ticks, but they cannot be used on the skin -- only on clothing. When using any of these chemicals, follow label directions carefully. Be especially cautious when using them on children.

-- After outdoor activities, check yourself for ticks, and have a "buddy" check you, too. Check body areas where ticks are commonly found: behind the knees, between the fingers and toes, under the arms, in and behind the ears, and on the neck, hairline, and top of the head. Check places where clothing presses on the skin.

-- Remove attached ticks immediately. Removing a tick before it has been attached for more than 24 hours greatly reduces the risk of infection. Use tweezers, and grab as closely to the skin as possible. Do not try to remove ticks by squeezing them, coating them with petroleum jelly, or burning them with a match.

For inquiries about the Babesiosis and other tick-borne diseases contact the Lyme Disease Diagnostic Center of Westchester Medical Center at (914) 493-TICK (8425).

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