Rare tick disease cases on rise in Rhode Island

By David Klepper
Associated Press / July 26, 2011

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PROVIDENCE - More Rhode Islanders are testing positive for a little-known tick disease that is related to malaria, health specialists said yesterday.

Babesiosis, once more commonly called Nantucket fever, is caused by a microscopic parasite transmitted by the bite of a deer tick. Healthy individuals may show no symptoms, though others might suffer from flulike complaints. But the disease can be life-threatening for the elderly or for people with weakened immune systems.

Just 15 years ago, Rhode Island averaged less than one confirmed case of babesiosis each year, according to Thomas Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease.

State health records show 76 people tested positive for the disease last year, and 89 tested positive in 2009.

“Lyme disease is more common, but we’re definitely finding [babesiosis] in more places,’’ Mather said.

“We’re diagnosing enough cases every year that we should be paying a lot more attention to it.’’

Better lab tests, the medical community’s growing awareness of the disease, and a resurgent rodent population are all possible explanations for the increase. Mice serve as host for babesiosis, Mather said.

The trend is being observed outside the Ocean State, too. Minnesota health officials reported 56 cases of babesiosis in 2010, up from 31 cases in 2009. Nearly half of the cases required hospitalization, and one person died.

Babesiosis cases are seen most often in the Northeast and Midwest. As its old name, Nantucket fever, suggests, the disease was once thought to be most widespread along coastal New England.

Mather said he many cases probably go unreported because adults may show no symptoms. He said treatment for babesiosis is similar to that given to malaria patients.

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