What Is Babesiosis, and Will It Kill Us All?

Your Labor Day picture was jobless and gloomy. Now here's some news that is frightening and doomy: A tick-borne parasite that causes a potentially deadly infection is hiding in America's blood supply. No FDA-approved diagnostic test can detect its presence. Should we panic?

Well, to adopt the appropriate emotional response, let's first examine some facts about this parasite, named Babesia microti, and Babesiosis, its signature sickness. As Reuters reports, Babesiosis infections often lead to "anemia, fever, chills and fatigue," but sometimes causes people's organs to fail, and/or kills them. The infection carries the most risk for cancer patients undergoing chemo, people with compromised immune systems, and premature babies. If you belong to any of those groups, you're totally entitled to panic.

Another cause for concern is that the Babesias are spreading:

A 31-year study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now suggests the parasitic infection may be increasing.

[...]
The still rare disease is known to occur in seven U.S. states in the Northeast and Upper Midwest in the spring and summer.

But a study led by Dr. Barbara Herwaldt of the CDC, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found cases had occurred year-round and in states where Babesia parasites are not found—including as far away as Texas and Florida.

That study just came out yesterday (which explains why we're hearing about this infection all of a sudden) and identified 159 Babesiosis cases over 30 years. Not so many, in other words! (Stop panicking.) However, the researchers say they might have underreported the number of cases for various reasons—for example, misdiagnosed and undetected cases. Also, 77 percent of the cases they studied presented between 2000 and 2009. (Start panicking again.)

The latest findings flesh out another CDC report, released in May 2011, that reported a 20-fold increase in the number of Babeosis cases annually reported in the Lower Hudson Valley of New York state since 2001. The new study puts those NY numbers into a larger frame of reference and concludes that Babesia microti is "the most frequently reported transfusion-transmitted parasite" in our nation. (A third study, conducted by University of Nebraska researchers and published yesterday in the Pediatrics journal, examined Babesiosis infections in seven premature babies but apparently focused more on routes of transmission than rates thereof.)

So now all we have to do is what for the FDA to approve a test that will successfully detect these little parasites, and then we can stop panicking. Right? Easier said than done: As one doctor notes, manufacturers haven't been all that jazzed about creating a test for Babesiosis because it's been too provincial and region-specific. In other words, we might have to wait until Babesia microti migrate to blood supplies nationwide before manufactures start taking it more seriously. Waiting for a deadly infectious agent to spread: That sounds like a great idea! (The meditation mat is over by the television.)

In the meantime, one doctor advises that you stay away from ticks. Our advice: also stay away from blood and chemotherapy. And if you're a baby, stay in your mom's womb until it's safe (either on-schedule or never, depending on how gloomy your picture is).

[Reuters, US News. Image via AP]