Babesiosis is a tickborne illness caused by a protozoan parasite, Babesia, which infects red blood cells and produces symptoms which are similar to those found in malaria. It can be subclinical and cause no to mild symptoms - but it can also lead to moderate and severe symptoms. And sadly, as we've seen - even kill people.
People who are most likely to have severe symptoms are the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, and those who do not have a spleen.
I know firsthand what Babesiosis is like because several months after I was bitten by a tick, new symptoms showed up in me which were indicative of an infection with Babesia. I also was fortunate to get a positive blood smear - not something which is easily accomplished in the lab.
The most obvious symptoms I experienced were an ongoing shortness of breath with the sensation of a vice-like grip around my ribs, breaking out into sweats at night, "flash" fevers, and anemia. There were other less known symptoms as well, but these are among the most common. Fortunately, I think (I hope) I have beat this coinfection, and it has not beat me.
As it stands, the United States has seen a number of its own deaths due to Babesia, and according to an article in the New York Times, in coastal Rhode Island, the number of cases of Babesia are around 25% less than those of Lyme disease - in an area which is highly endemic for Lyme disease. And not only is Babesia becoming quite common in northeastern states - it's spreading to the northern midwest as well and was already found on the west coast.
One important thing to be aware of is not only can Babesia be transmitted by ticks - it can be spread through the blood supply via donations and transfusions. Thus far, there are twelve people who have died from Babesia spread through blood transfusions in the US. It is unknown, though, how many people may have been infected with Babesia through the blood supply and currently carry a more subclinical infection that may become more evident later.
There is currently no blood screening test available for donations and transfusions, and research is underway to develop such a test to avoid spreading more Babesia through the blood supply. So I highly recommend that if you have to get surgery and know this in advance, that you blood bank your own blood in preparation in case you need a transfusion.
You can view the dramatic video of the Today Tonight story here [4:46 minutes, plus short ad]:
Read this link for a full transcript of the show:
For more information about Babesia and Babesiosis, check out these links:
Specific to Australia: http://lymedisease.org.au/about-lyme-disease/babesiosis/
About the Lifecycle: http://www.stanford.edu/group/parasites/ParaSites2006/Babesiosis/lifecycle.html
About Treatment: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/780914-treatment
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