This tick-borne illness is on the rise in Vermont. Here's what you should know.
A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds a new tick-borne illness is on the rise in Vermont, though the number of cases here remains very low.
Babesiosis can cause flu-like symptoms that can be severe for people who don’t have a spleen, are very elderly, have liver or kidney disease or are immunocompromised.
It’s caused by a parasite that is spread by black-legged, or deer ticks — the same ones that spread Lyme disease.
It can take a few weeks to a few months for a person to show symptoms. Most people who are exposed to the parasite don’t even know they’ve been infected and don’t require treatment.
More from VPR: As New England winters warm, moose are getting overwhelmed by winter ticks. Some scientists say hunting could help.
According to the CDC report, from 2011 to 2019, Vermont saw the biggest percent increase in human cases of any New England state. The disease is now considered endemic across the New England region.
“But we’re talking about a change of two cases in 2011, to 34 cases in 2019,” said Natalie Kwit, Vermont’s public health veterinarian.
Kwit says it’s important to note Vermont had the second lowest average annual case count of any state in the CDC’s study. The same was true for our per capita case count.
However, Kwit says, “Tick-borne diseases in general in the United States as a whole and in Vermont have been on the rise in the past few decades.”
Babesiosis is now the third-most common tick-borne illness in the state. Lyme disease is the most common, followed by anaplasmosis.
“Tick-borne diseases in general in the United States as a whole and in Vermont have been on the rise in the past few decades.”Natalie Kwit, Vermont Department of Health
Patti Casey manages the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets’ environmental surveillance program, which surveys tick populations in the state — and tests them for the parasite.
From 2018 to 2020, her team did see a steady increase in the percentage of ticks carrying the pathogen, but she says overall, they represent a small percentage of the tick population.
“The average over those three years… is close to 5% of the ticks collected that tested positive,” Casey said.
Casey says among ticks themselves, this disease appears to be limited to the Southern half of the state. Rutland County has the highest density of ticks with the parasite that causes babesiosis, followed by Windham County.
She says it’s not yet clear why that is but, “As we’re seeing the effects of climate change affect tick populations in Vermont, you know, we’re seeing the diseases sort of follow.”
Climate change is making Vermont winters warm faster than the global average, which gives ticks more time in the year to hunt. Tick populations here have increased since 2015, but Casey says more data is needed to understand the full picture of why that’s happening.
More from the New England News Collaborative: Deer ticks are benefiting from warming winters in the Northeast. That's raising health concerns
How to protect yourself
Kwit says the good news here is that you can protect yourself from babesiosis the same way you would from any other tick-borne illness.
She says preventing tick bites is the best way to stay safe. Preliminarily, that means wearing long sleeves and pants outdoors during peak tick season in spring, early summer and fall.
Here’s a timeless guide for how to protect yourself from ticks
Thanks to human-caused climate change, Casey says tick season is year-round in most of Vermont. Spring is when they are at their tiniest, in the nymph stage of their lifecycle, which makes them hardest to find and remove.
“Everyone should be taking steps to prevent tick bites in Vermont, especially during this time of year when they’re active,” said Kwit.
It’s a good idea to wear an EPA-approved tick repellent. And showering within two hours of coming indoors from tick habitat is a proven way to reduce your risk.
But what’s really key is checking yourself every day.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Abagael Giles @AbagaelGiles.