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Tick-Borne Illness Could Endanger Blood Supply, Researchers Warn

A rare and potentially fatal tick-borne illness could emerge as a threat to the U.S. blood supply.

A study led by by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that babesiosis, an infection caused by microscopic parasites that infect red blood cells, may be on the rise.

Currently, there is no approved screening process for detecting babesia before people donate blood. The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, called the illness the “most frequently reported transfusion-transmitted parasite in the United States.” It also can be spread through tick bites.

Still, the number of cases remains small. As HealthDay reports, researchers found 159 babesia cases that resulted from blood transfusions in the 31-year period, from 1979 through 2009, tracked in the study.

The illness, normally found in several states in the Northeast and Midwest, has turned up as far away from those regions as Texas and Florida. While scientists work on a way to detect babesia in donated blood, the researchers are urging doctors to watch out for patients with the symptoms. Those range from as mild,  flulike symptoms to severe breathing problems and organ damage.

In particular, doctors are urged to watch for patients who may have an unexplained fever or hemolytic anemia, which is characterized by a low red blood cell count.

The Wall Street Journal reported last year that, since 2006, 10 U.S. deaths were linked to babesiosis.

“Transfusion-related infection can occur in all four seasons and, in theory, could occur anywhere,” said the study’s leader, Dr. Barbara Herwaldt, a CDC medical epidemiologist. “Blood donors travel and blood components are shipped across state lines.”

TIMOTHY BELLA

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