You're probably familiar with Lyme disease, a bacterial infection spread from the bite of an infected deer tick. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), another rare tick-borne illness, babesiosis, is on the rise — with a strong foothold in northeast and midwest United States.
Cases of babesiosis in the U.S. jumped by 25 per cent from 2011 to 2019, causing the CDC to declare the illness an endemic in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire.
Although this deadly blood disease is still rare in Canada, cases are growing and experts warn it shouldn’t be ignored.
"I expect to see babesiosis continue to spread in Canada," Justin Wood, founder of Geneticks, a Canadian-based lab that tests tick-borne disease, tells Yahoo Canada. "We routinely detect babesia species in tick populations in Canada, and it is likely that babesiosis will continue to spread as the ranges of these ticks and their reservoir species continue to expand."
Babesiosis can be a serious, deadly disease — especially for the immunocompromised
"Lyme disease and babesiosis are both severe illnesses which should be taken very seriously," Wood says. "They can both be debilitating to patients, particularly if left untreated."
Unfortunately, it’s possible to be infected with both tick-carrying pathogens at the same time.
Genetick’s 2022 tick testing data shows that approximately 9 per cent of blacklegged ticks that tested positive for the bacteria that cause Lyme disease also tested positive for babesia. This represented approximately 2 per cent of blacklegged ticks tested across Canada.
How babesiosis differs from Lyme disease: What are the symptoms?
In early infection, Wood says that Lyme Disease and babesiosis share a number of symptoms such as lethargy, headaches, body pain and flu-like symptoms. There is also an overlap in symptoms in the later stages of infection which include fever, chills, body aches, loss of appetite, nausea and fatigue.
According to the CDC, babesiosis can be fatal to the elderly and immunocompromised, which is uncommon in cases of Lyme. Severe complications manifest as blood disorders, renal failure and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
"Some of the main differences to be aware of are that Lyme disease is a bacterial infection, whereas babesiosis is caused by a microorganism called a protozoa," Wood explains. "This means that babesiosis requires a different treatment approach than would generally be used for Lyme disease."
Because babesiosis infects red blood cells, it’s often considered to be similar to malaria — another protozoan infection that affects red blood cells. Signs of the two blood diseases are so alike that clinical confusion and misdiagnosis of babesiosis as malaria has been reported.
Symptoms unique to babesiosis include air-hunger (a feeling Wood describes as not being able to draw in a complete breath), tinnitus or ringing of the ears and night sweats — which you don’t commonly see with Lyme disease.
Tick-borne illnesses are spreading in Canada
According to a recent study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, babesiosis is a fairly new phenomenon in Canada.
The first record of human babesiosis in Canada, caused by babesia duncani, was reported in 2017.
Another study shows that tick-borne diseases (like babesiosis) are on the rise in central Canada and growing swiftly in places like Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Wood notes climate change is a significant factor in the rise of babesiosis. Ticks thrive in temperatures of four degrees Celsius and above, with peak blacklegged tick activity usually occurring in the fall. Because temperatures are rising, tick-borne illnesses are increasing throughout Canada.
"Climate change has allowed not only ticks, but the reservoir species that maintain diseases like babesiosis, to expand further and further north into Canada," he says. "As this range expansion progresses, we can expect to see more and more areas in Canada become risk areas for tick-borne diseases like babesiosis."
How to protect yourself from babesiosis
Since this blood disease is most commonly spread through the bite of an infected blacklegged tick, "the best way for people to protect themselves from contracting babesiosis is to prevent tick bites."
Woods says this can be done by doing regular tick checks, using an insect repellent containing picaridin or Deet, wearing light coloured clothing, and staying to the centre of trails while out hiking.
If you find a tick on your body, remove it carefully with a pair of fine-tipped tweezers as soon as possible and consult your doctor for appropriate next steps. You can also identify ticks using the etick.ca website and submit them to Geneticks for testing.