Another tick illness may be on the rise

08/26/2010 12:00 AM |


He’s healthy now, but Thomas Kelly of Greenport spent five days in the ICU after initially ignoring symptoms of what turned out to be babesiosis.

“It almost killed me,” 68-year-old Thomas Kelly said of his bout with the tick-borne disease babesiosis. Two years ago Mr. Kelly spent five days in the intensive care unit at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead.

Jerry Case, 79, of Southold, recently recovered from a siege of it, said it was “terrifying” and a “terrible experience.” As his temperature soared and his energy declined he wondered if he would ever be able to resume his active lifestyle. But he was doing much better this week, after a course of antibiotics, and working on regaining the 14 pounds he lost.

Dr. Michael Catapano of Cutchogue, who has treated several patients for babesiosis, advised: “If you have a fever around here, it’s something that should be checked out.”

Peconic Bay Medical Center doctors have seen 20 or so cases this summer, about double from past summers, according to Dr. Sandeep Gandhi. An infectious disease specialist, Dr. Gandhi said at least half of the people he has treated didn’t even know they’d been infected until blood tests revealed they had babesiosis.

“People shouldn’t panic; this is a curable disease,” said Dr. Gary Rosenbaum, also an infectious disease specialist at PBMC. It appears that once a patient is cured, babesiosis won’t recur, he said. It also appears not to be transmittable person-to-person, he said, except in the case of fetal transmission from mother to child or through blood transfusions. And only about 20 percent of ticks actually carry babesiosis or Lyme disease, the better known culprit around here, he said.

While there has been an increase in the number of cases reported this summer, most have not been severe, Dr. Rosenbaum said, with patients reporting aches, fatigue and mild fever. He has seen a longer season for the disease, from late March until early December, which might be a factor in the higher number of reported cases.

Eastern Long Island Hospital infectious disease specialist Dr. Robert Walsh said he has seen “a tad more cases” but “nothing really significant.” Doctors working on the East End of Long Island typically will test for babesiosis, said Dr. Lawrence Schiff, who runs ELIH’s emergency medical department.

The Centers for Disease Control website indicates that there has been an increase in cases and it might result from increased diagnosis in patients who weren’t symptomatic.

Suffolk County Health Department spokeswoman Grace McGovern didn’t have statistics, but said doctors have been ordering more tests to confirm the presence of babesiosis this year than in previous years.

Without a blood test, it may be difficult to tell if a patient has Lyme or babesiosis. Like Lyme, babesiosis can start out with fever, fatigue and aches and pains. But babesiosis does not have the telltale rash that some, but not all, Lyme sufferers get.

A babesiosis fever will generally spike at 102 to 105 degrees, the doctors said. Although it may subside, it will spike again. The patient will feel fatigued and suffer from head and body aches, they said.

Profuse sweating, chills, nausea and loss of appetite are frequently reported symptoms of babesiosis. Because of the loss of appetite, patients may well become anemic and even anorexic. Others may experience darkened urine. Adults with a babesiosis infection tend to suffer more than youths. In extremely serious cases, patients may need blood transfusions, but that’s unusual, Dr. Rosenbaum said. Babesiosis symptoms are often mild, but there is some risk for people who have had their spleens removed, are HIV positive or suffer from other immune system deficiencies. For these patients, babesiosis can be more profound and even occasionally fatal.

Mr. Kelly said he had ignored early symptoms.

“I thought it would pass,” he said. An active man who walked an hour a day, he never thought about becoming seriously ill. “I’m fine one day and almost dead the next,” he said.

When his symptoms persisted, Mr. Kelly saw his doctor, who sent him for blood tests. Leaving the lab, he collapsed in the parking lot and was rushed to PBMC.

“Peconic Bay Medical Center saved my life,” Mr. Kelly said.

Karen Doherty, 58, who splits her time between Greenport and New York City, battled the ailment for two years and said she’s just beginning to feel better.

“I spiraled and I spiraled and I spiraled,” she said. Used to living a very busy life, she said she has had to curtail a lot of her activities over the past two years.

“I was a very healthy person,” Ms. Doherty said. She started with Lyme disease and was eventually diagnosed with babesiosis. For some people, the disease is chronic, she believes.

“It does not become chronic,” Dr. Rosenbaum said. That debate also persists about Lyme disease, with some patients reporting chronic symptoms that doctors insist are not related to Lyme.

“The medical profession does not have an exact answer on this illness yet,” Ms. Doherty said.

As for prevention, Dr. Rosenbaum advises people to keep their lawns cut low, wear long pants with socks and long-sleeved shirts when in wooded areas and keep to the middle of the path, away from plants and brush. Check yourself, children and pets, he said. And consider using a repellent and reapplying it every few hours if you’re going to be out in a wooded area, he said.

Particularly check hair and armpits and the groin area, since these are places where the ticks will frequently lodge, he said.

If you have symptoms, don’t ignore them. Early diagnosis is critical to avoiding more serious illness, Dr. Rosenbaum said.

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