First case of rare tick-borne disease diagnosed in England: what are the symptoms of babesiosis?

A case of tick-borne disease babesiosis has been discovered in the UK, but what is it? (Getty Images)
A case of tick-borne disease babesiosis has been discovered in the UK, but what is it? (Getty Images)

People are being urged to be on alert for tick bites, following the diagnosis for the first time in England of a rare disease.

Public Health England (PHE) says while the risk to the public remains “very low”, it is important for families to be “tick aware” when outside in green spaces this summer.

They confirmed the diagnosis of a case of babesiosis and a probable case of tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) in England, which is the first record of a UK-acquired case of babesiosis and the second case of TBE in the UK.

Dr Katherine Russell Consultant in the Emerging Infections and Zoonoses team at PHE said cases of babesiosis and TBE in England are rare: “Lyme disease remains the most common tick-borne infection in England,” she said.

“Ticks are most active between spring and autumn, so it is sensible to take some precautions to avoid being bitten when enjoying the outdoors. Seek medical advice if you start to feel unwell after a tick bite.”

What is babesiosis?

According to PHE, babesiosis is caused by a parasite which infects red blood cells whilst TBE is a viral infection that affects the central nervous system.

Both are rare infections spread by the bite from an infected tick.

“Babesiosis is a rare infectious disease that is caused by parasites known as babesia, and it’s usually carried and transmitted by ticks,” explains Dr Daniel Cichi from Doctor-4-U.

“The parasites can enter the bloodstream if you are bitten by a tick and infect the red blood cells.”

Dr Joshua Berkowitz, founder of the Lyme Disease Clinic, adds that babesiosis is actually a co-infection of Lyme disease.

“While technically it’s possible to get ONLY babesiosis, the reality is no ticks are so ‘clean’ that they only carry one bacterium or infection,” he explains. “Lyme disease should really be called a multi-system infectious disease.

Dr Berkowitz says babesiosis is different from the bacterial infection of Lyme disease because it’s a parasite.

“Lyme disease clinics and specialist practitioners would expect around 15-20% of their Lyme disease patients to be carrying the parasite in conjunction with Lyme disease and other co-infections,” he explains.

“It may be that less-specialist GPs or medics aren’t looking or testing for it as we do, hence it’s considered ‘rare’. It’s a case of having to look for it to find it!”

Read more: Lyme disease cases are 'threefold higher than previously estimated'

People are being warned to be tick-aware this summer. (Getty Images)
People are being warned to be tick-aware this summer. (Getty Images)

What are the symptoms of babesiosis?

According to Dr Cichi, symptoms of babesiosis can often be mistaken for flu as they often start with a high fever, fatigue, chills, muscle aches, headache, and loss of appetite and this can start within 1-8 weeks after infection.

Some people may experience symptoms of anaemia because the parasite attacks red blood cells.

“These symptoms may include weakness, pale skin, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, and confusion,” Dr Cichi adds.

“Babesiosis is more life-threatening in those who have a weakened immune system the elderly, and those who no longer have a spleen.”

While babesiosis can be a life-threatening disease, some people who are infected can be asymptomatic or the symptoms are present but go unnoticed and if left untreated it can be fatal.

“There is an effective treatment in the form of antibiotics combined with antiparasitic drugs, but because the symptoms can be very mild in some cases, diagnosis can be delayed and treatment is not given soon enough and there can be severe complications as a result such as heart failure and kidney failure.”

Babesiosis is more prominent in warmer months and in warmer countries, and the risk in the UK is very low.

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Families are being warned to be aware this summer while enjoying outdoor spaces. (Getty Images)
Families are being warned to be aware this summer while enjoying outdoor spaces. (Getty Images)

How do you avoid tick bites?

While the risk of babesiosis or TBE for the general public is very low, a number of infections can develop following a tick bite, including Lyme disease, and there are things we can all do to reduce our risk of being bitten by ticks while outdoors this summer.

“Babesiosis infection is preventable as well as other diseases that are carried by ticks, you just need to take certain precautions when out in wooded areas or green spaces where ticks are likely to be,” Dr Cichi explains.

“This means wearing clothing that covers all of your skin to prevent a tick attaching to you, you may tuck your trousers into your socks so that there are no gaps for ticks to make their way to your skin.”

Dr Cichi also suggests using an insect repellent that contains DEET on your clothing and exposed areas of skin.

“It’s also important to regularly check your body for ticks while you’re out and when you get home, and avoid areas with long grass where ticks often gather until they attach to an animal or human,” he adds.

PHE says people should follow the following guidelines:

  • Keep to footpaths and avoid long grass when out walking

  • Wear appropriate clothing such as a long-sleeved shirt, and trousers tucked into your socks, to make it less likely that a tick will bite and attach

  • Consider the use of repellents containing DEET

  • Make it a habit to carry out a tick check regularly when you’re outdoors and when you get home

  • If you have been bitten by a tick, it should be removed as soon as possible, using fine-tipped tweezers or a tick removal tool

  • Contact your GP promptly if you begin to feel unwell, remembering to tell them you were bitten by a tick or recently spent time outdoors.

Read more: Mum warns other parents after her children have severe reaction to toxic caterpillars

What to do if you’re bitten by a tick

According to Dr Cichi, it may take some time before the disease is transmitted after the tick attaches, so if you spot a tick on your body remove it straight away with tweezers, or with a tool that’s specially designed to remove ticks and make sure you wash the area thoroughly and apply some antiseptic cream.

“Look out for signs of infection after being bitten by a tick and if you start to feel unwell, speak to your GP urgently,” he says.

“You may need to have a blood test that can detect the disease.”

Though there’s currently no vaccine for humans against this disease but there is for animals such as dogs so it’s important that you take these precautions to prevent being bitten by a tick and becoming infected, and potentially becoming seriously ill.

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