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Woman's health scare highlights public threat of invasive ticks: 'The doctor told me that I easily could have died'

"It was almost impossible to get from my bed to the bathroom, which was like 10 feet away."

"It was almost impossible to get from my bed to the bathroom, which was like 10 feet away."

Photo Credit: iStock

Cases of babesiosis are on the rise in New England as ticks expand their ranges across the United States.

What's happening?

The incidence of disease more than doubled from 2011 to 2019, GBH News reported. In 2023, it became endemic in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, which joined seven other states in New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the Upper Midwest. 

Babesiosis, usually caused by the bite of an infected blacklegged tick, commonly known as the deer tick, can be deadly. Symptoms include fever, chills, fatigue, and headache. Those with compromised immune systems or who don't have a spleen, as well as older adults, are more susceptible to the worst effects.

That was the case for Mainer Kristen Smith, who last year was diagnosed with strep throat, West Nile virus, and anaplasmosis before doctors ordered a tick panel when she landed in the emergency room, GBH reported.

"My breathing started to become very labored. And I had literally no energy," Smith said. "It was almost impossible to get from my bed to the bathroom, which was like 10 feet away."

She returned to the ER two weeks later with jaundice and was diagnosed with babesiosis. Babesiosis was first documented in the United States in Massachusetts in 1969.

Why is the spread of tick-borne diseases important?

Because Smith doesn't have a spleen, the babesiosis parasite, which attacks red blood cells, did serious damage. She spent a week in the hospital, needing seven blood transfusions, antibiotics, and antiparasitics, according to GBH.

"The doctor told me that I easily could have died if I hadn't come to the hospital when I did," said Smith, who has since recovered.

Babesiosis is one of a number of tick-borne diseases that are becoming more common as the arachnids march across the United States, which, like other countries, is warming rapidly because of the gases produced by humans that envelop Earth like a blanket.

"We have an increased number of cases of babesiosis here and increased geographic spread, partly due to climate and partly due to the fact that we have encroached into areas that were previously wooded," Boston Medical Center epidemiologist Dr. Cassandra Pierre said.

What's being done about these diseases?

Asymptomatic babesiosis patients do not require treatment. If you have unresolved symptoms, whether or not you suspect a tick bite, you can ask for a tick panel. The tick must feed for 24 hours to transmit the parasite, GBH reported, but juvenile ticks are so small that they can avoid detection.

You can protect yourself by using certain insect repellents, wearing light-colored pants and long sleeves, and treating your clothes and belongings with insecticides that include 0.5% permethrin, which kills ticks on contact, according to the CDC. Check your skin and clothes for ticks, focusing on hair, underarms, and groin, and bathe immediately to reduce your risk of exposure.

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