In Maine, there appears to be a new tick-borne disease on the rise and experts from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are sounding the alarm about its potential severity. This is not shocking news for those who deal with ticks on a daily basis in the state, though.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week added Maine to the list of New England states where the potentially fatal babesiosis is now considered endemic. When a disease is said to be endemic, it means that it has been permanently established in a certain area and that its rates of spread and incidence follow a regular pattern.
Dr. Megan Porter, a public health educator with Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said:
“Here in Maine we have considered babesiosis to be endemic for years at this point, But it is shocking to see some of those numbers in the [U.S. CDC] report.”
What are the Symptoms of Babesiosis?
Symptoms of babesiosis include fever, chills and lethargy. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that the number of recorded cases of babesiosis in Maine has increased from nine in 2011 to 138 in 2019.
According to the survey, tick activity has surged across the state in recent years due to the extremely warm weather. Babesiosis in Maine has been monitored for almost 20 years by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension tick lab.
Griffin Dill, who coordinates the tick lab, claims that “we’ve had babesiosis cases” in Maine since 2001. But after years of stability at around 5-10 annual cases, the rate began to spike in 2013 to the current 30-40 annual instances.
Dill estimates that there are about 200 new cases per year. That sounds like a modest number, he remarked. But, there is a significant likelihood it is underreported, as was the case with Lyme illness. The same ticks that carry and transmit Lyme disease also carry and spread babesiosis.
According to the CDC, unlike Lyme, there is no characteristic bulls-eye rash at the bite site. There are no distinctive outward signs of babesiosis and the condition is often identified through a blood test. Porter said:
“Fever chills and feeling weary or lethargic are the symptoms of babesiosis. These symptoms are typical of illnesses transmitted by ticks, such as the flu, COVID and others. Anemia or a decrease in the number of red blood cells, is a symptom specific to babesiosis”.
Severe instances of babesiosis can result in severe respiratory failure, heart failure, liver failure, renal failure and even death. Porter said that anyone who has been bitten in the previous month and is having these symptoms should get tested immediately.
“Since the symptoms may be so severe and people can die, we want people to take it seriously,” he added. Porter didn’t know if babesiosis deaths had ever been reported in Maine.
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How to Protect Yourself from Tick-Borne Diseases?
Babesiosis and Lyme disease have similar symptoms. Chills, fever, exhaustion, muscle soreness and headaches are all possible side effects of both. Lyme disease and babesiosis co-occurrence has been documented. Dill remarked that:
“If there are ticks co-infected, they can transmit both diseases to humans. We have tested ticks here in the labs and had ticks themselves co-infected with Lyme and babesiosis”.
Recent years have shown an increase in the prevalence of these diseases in Maine. The Maine CDC reported a 35 percent increase in Lyme disease and a 200 percent increase in babesiosis over the previous year in a presentation to the health and human services committee of the Maine Legislature last summer.
The CDC study analyzed babesiosis patterns over a period of nine years. Throughout that same period, the rate in Maine rose by 1,422 percent. That’s the second-highest increase in New England after Vermont’s 1,602% growth.
There is no longer a “tick season” in Maine due to the monthly reports of ticks over the past few years. Increased tick activity can be attributed to the state’s exceptionally warm winter weather, as ticks are not real hibernators and become active again when temperatures rise.
“It’s been an intriguing winter so far from the sense that we typically receive a period with no tick submissions”.
Dill remarked that the tick population will likely increase as a result of the current winter’s mildness because the ticks would emerge in greater numbers in the spring. We can have a hectic period of time here.
Porter insists the new CDC report should not cause undue alarm. But caution should be exercised when venturing into the great outdoors.
In order to prevent tick bites, Dill recommends that people who spend time outdoors when the temperature is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit apply insect repellent, wear long sleeves and slacks tucked into socks, and perform a full body check when returning indoors.
Once you get back inside, Porter suggests giving your clothes a spin in the dryer for 10 to 15 minutes on high to get rid of any ticks that may have hitched a ride.
It is important to remove a tick from your skin as soon as you notice it is attached so that you don’t give the tick’s infections a chance to enter your body, as recommended by Porter.
Put the tick in rubbing alcohol to kill it and preserve it before sealing the jar and sending it to the University of Maine tick lab for testing.
That babesiosis is similar to other tick-borne infections in Maine is the most important takeaway, according to Porter. “Avoiding getting bit by a tick with the disease is the best way to avoid getting it.”
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