You may not have heard of babesiosis; it’s a rare condition that is spread specifically through ticks. However, despite the strangely endearing-sounding name, the disease can potentially be life-threatening and should be taken extremely seriously. It produces symptoms quite similar to malaria, and is caused by microscopic parasites which invade red blood cells. Animals have been found to carry many different strains of babesiosis, with only a few of those strains being detected in humans. Babesiosis is also notorious as a prominent Lyme co-infection. Both diseases can be transmitted simultaneously through a single tick bite. Because Lyme disease is often the main cause for concern, a test for babesiosis can often be overlooked. However, it’s important to eradicate Lyme and its co-infections concurrently, making the testing and diagnostic stage crucial.
Babesiosis infection occurs via tick bite. The bacteria Babesia microti is spread through the Ixodes scapularis ticks, commonly known as black-legged ticks or deer ticks. These deer ticks are the same species that carries the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which causes Lyme in humans. They are most active in the summer months, and the majority of Babesia microti bacteria is spread via the nymph stage of the tick. Contracting the two at the same time is not uncommon, which is why patients and doctors alike should be conscious of the link between babesiosis and Lyme disease. Like most other Lyme co-infections, a weakened immune system can severely compound the detrimental effects of babesiosis, making early and successful detection crucial.
The symptoms of babesiosis are varied and unfortunately unspecific. In an otherwise healthy person, babesiosis may cause no symptoms whatsoever. Some people, however, will develop symptoms about one to four weeks after coming into contact with the offending tick. These symptoms will generally present as flu-like, which can cause diagnostic problems due to lack of specificity. Body aches, fatigue, headache, chills, fever, and sweating are all common, albeit generic, symptoms of babesiosis. A more serious complication is hemolytic anemia, a condition that kills off red blood cells faster than your body can create them. Symptoms of hemolytic anemia can include spleen or liver swelling, confusion, dizziness, weakness, and jaundice. A weakened immune system can worsen these symptoms. Unfortunately, the primary symptoms of acute Lyme disease are similar (flu-like in nature), meaning that you’ll require a medical professional well-versed in the disorders to catch both infections.
So how exactly is babesiosis diagnosed and tested for? The first step is a clinical evaluation of the patient, which of course will vary on a case-to-case basis. If a tick bite can be recalled, then diagnosis becomes that much easier. Unfortunately, the deer-legged tick is a very small arachnid, and often bites hosts without their knowledge. On top of this, it actively seeks out places on the body where it’s unlikely to be found, hindering detection further. If a doctor suspects babesiosis, then the next step is a series of blood tests. By examining a smear of blood under a microscope, a doctor can usually see the Babesia parasites inside the red blood cells. However, if the patient can confirm a tick bite, or has experienced particularly debilitating initial symptoms, then a more rigorous blood test is required.
The traditional blood test is known as the ELISpot, which can test for the presence of many different infections. However, when it comes to Lyme disease, the ELISpot was returning false negatives far too often. This is largely due to the complex interplay between infection and inflammation in patients, a dichotomy specific to chronic Lyme disease. Infectolab Americas, a tick-borne disease specialist based in Oakdale, Minnesota, supported the development of a more specific new ELISpot test, which takes both infection and inflammation symptoms into account. Essentially, the new ELISpot test identifies T-cells, which are cells produced by the immune system. They can broadly be defined as attacking cells, which eradicate infection; and memory cells, which retain the imprint of the infection so that it can be effectively combated if it crops up again.
The results in a much more specific type of test. Infectolab are also well versed in co-infections, and know the dangers of leaving them undiagnosed or untreated. Lyme disease is definitely the umbrella disorder, as it were, but leaving co-infections in the body can result in resurgences of Lyme disease, or fresh symptoms of their own. The new ELISpot test has now been expanded to include co-infections, using specific antigens to stimulate additional T-cells in patients. Unlike Lyme, babesiosis doesn’t produce inflammation symptoms in quite the same way. The test will therefore search for the attacking form of T-cells, unique to Babesia microti as the body tries to defend itself against the invasion.
Using this new method of testing, doctors will be able to give their patients a better overview of their condition, as well as their specific situation with Lyme disease. It’s important to keep in mind that Lyme cases vary wildly from patient to patient. Some people may just contract Lyme disease, while some people may be unlucky enough to catch a whole host of co-infections with it. On top of this, the severity of the symptoms will also vary between patients, depending on how compromised the immune system is. It is therefore important to get a clear and accurate picture as soon as possible. The fact that the new ELISpot test can deliver a snapshot of various prominent Lyme co-infections simultaneously should go a long way towards improved treatment.