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Lyme Disease's Evil Henchmen: Other Tick-Borne Infections Grow

This article is more than 7 years old.

The final segment in WBUR's week-long Lyme disease series is not about Lyme disease at all. It's about the rising threat from what I think of as Lyme's evil henchmen, rare but dangerous infections that are also carried by ticks and have been known, in the worst cases, to prove fatal.

See the full story, by WBUR's Steve Brown, here: Emerging tickborne diseases causing concern in Mass. We also posted a recent report on state public health officials' concern that though these other tick-borne diseases are relatively rare, they're growing very quickly, roughly doubling in the last year.

Writer Jennifer Crystal
Writer Jennifer Crystal

Am I fear-mongering? Oh, yes, and I'm not done yet; I have some excellent help. Read this horrifying tale that appeared in the Boston Globe in May. Written skillfully by Jennifer Crystal, an Emerson College student, it describes a long-misdiagnosed case of what turned out to be not just Lyme disease but co-infections of babesia, ehrlichia and bartonella. She ended up bedridden for two years.

Steve Brown quotes Cape Cod entomologist Larry Dapsis: "These ticks can carry more than one pathogen. In fact, with these nymph stage ticks that are basically the size of a poppy seed, in our research, we find that upwards of 15 percent of these ticks can be carrying Lyme plus one of these other two pathogens."

Dapsis says anaplasmosis is especially prevalent in the Berkshires; babesiosis is concentrated mainly on and around Cape Cod and the islands (see the map below.)

Jennifer blogs here about co-infection with other tick-borne illnesses on lymedisease.org:

Before tick-borne illness became my way of life, I had never heard of babesia, ehrlichia or bartonella, either. These parasitic infections are difficult to pronounce, let alone spell or comprehend. It’s easy to brush off what we don’t understand as not important, but sweeping these illnesses under the carpet is an egregious error that we cannot afford to make.

A single tick bite can deliver a number of co-infections, the most common being the aforementioned three. Unfortunately, the presence of these coinfections can complicate treatment immensely. Babesia, for instance, which is related to malaria, requires completely different drugs than Lyme. When a Lyme patient doesn’t respond to treatment, it may be due to undiagnosed and untreated co-infections.

It’s time to include co-infections in our Lyme awareness efforts. This is a tall order for words that don’t exactly roll off the tongue. My writing professor, fed up with trying to sound out babesia, finally exclaimed, “I can’t pronounce it. Let’s just call it babelicious.”

To which I would respond: Whatever works for you, professor. Just keep it in mind when you're in tick territory.

babesiosis map

This program aired on June 29, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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