LYME SCI: Babesia and the blood supply
In December 2016, the American Red Cross published the results of a two-year study into the U.S. blood supply. They were specifically looking for an infectious parasite known as Babesia in donated blood, and they found it in 335 of the samples they tested.
Since then, the CDC has published “Babesiosis and the U.S. Blood Supply” and is letting the public know you can be infected:
- by the bite of an infected tick (most common)
- by getting a blood transfusion from an infected donor of blood products
- by congenital transmission—from an infected mother to her baby (during pregnancy or delivery)
The CDC has known since 1979 that Babesia causes transfusion-transmitted infection in the United States. The FDA estimates 11% of transfusion related deaths are caused by microbial contaminated blood, with up to 38% of the fatalities linked to Babesia.
What Is Babesia
Babesia is a protozoan parasite that infects red blood cells. It is primarily transmitted to humans by Ixodes ticks—the same blacklegged ticks that carry Lyme disease. Ticks carrying the Babesia parasite have been steadily increasing over the past 30 years. Over the same time period, ticks carrying Borrelia burgdorferi (the bacteria that causes Lyme disease) have also increased as much as 500% in some areas of the U.S.
Babesia is currently the most common co-infection associated with Lyme disease and is regarded as the foremost infectious risk to the U.S. blood supply.
Click here for the number of cases reported in your state
Symptoms of Babesiosis
Signs of infection may begin anywhere from one to nine weeks from the date of exposure, and may include fever, headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, anemia, day/night sweats, depression, and a feeling of “air hunger” or shortness of breath.
Many people with Babesia infection show no symptoms at all, while for others, the disease can be severe and even fatal. Patients without spleens, who are immunocompromised, infants and people over the age of 50 have a higher risk for complications. Sadly, the former first lady of New Jersey, Jean Bryne, died of babesiosis in August of 2015.
How Does Babesia Get Into The Blood Supply
When screening blood donors, the American Red Cross does not ask whether donors have ever been bitten by a tick or had Lyme disease. It does state “those who have had infections with Chagas Disease, Babesiosis or Leishmaniasis are not eligible to donate.” The problem is many people with babesiosis are asymptomatic or had an infection that wasn’t diagnosed because they were never tested or they were not tested properly.
The CDC has known for years that relatively healthy individuals infected with Babesia can unknowingly donate contaminated blood. However, it wasn’t until 2011 that the CDC set a standard for surveillance and made babesiosis a reportable illness.
Unfortunately, only 31 states have implemented a system for reporting Babesia infections. Also in 2011, the CDC published a retrospective study showing 159 cases of babesiosis contracted by blood transfusions, with 70% of those infections occurring after the year 2000, resulting in at least 12 deaths.
How Did They Find The Contaminated Blood?
Shortly after the 2011 CDC report, the American Red Cross launched a study in partnership with IMUGEN, Inc. to investigate the blood supply from four states for the presence of Babesia microti. From 2012-2014 they screened 89,153 blood-donation samples from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and found 335 donations to be infected with Babesia microti. (You can watch a summary of their findings here)
Limitations of the Babesia Study
The first known case of babesiosis in the U.S. occurred in 1966, after a resident of San Francisco became extremely ill with malaria-like symptoms that were later identified as a Babesia infection. Since then, scientists have identified hundreds of species of Babesia, with several known to infect humans.
Babesia microti is the primary cause of babesiosis in the United States. There are however, at least 5 other strains of Babesia known to infect humans in the U.S.: B. divergens, B. CA1, B. MO1, B. duncani (WA1), and a newly discovered species from Tennesee, B. TN1. However, people who travel out of the country could be exposed to several other species of Babesia.
Because the Red Cross study only looked for B. microti, it is likely the actual number of cases of Babesia contamination is much higher than stated.
What Happens If You Are Given Blood Contaminated With Babesia
The researchers were able to confirm in the laboratory that Babesia-contaminated blood resulted in positive transmission 50% of the time in healthy animals. Unfortunately, most people who need blood transfusions have severe injury, infection, organ failure, cancer or are immunocompromised.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We know that the most frequent tick-borne pathogens in the United States, B. burgdorferi (Lyme disease) B. microti (Babesiosis), and A. phagocytophilum (the causative agent of human granulocytic anaplasmosis), are all transmitted by Ixodes ticks. Thus, anywhere you have Ixodes ticks in the world you will also have a risk of tick-borne diseases.
With Lyme disease being reported in nearly half of all U.S. counties and with Babesia following a similar pattern, the best thing for patients would be a universal blood screening for all tick-borne diseases. Because a universal test has not been developed, a reasonable starting point would be to begin nationwide year-round antibody screening for Babesia as recommended by the FDA in 2015.
At this point the best we may get is a compromise of screening blood donations from the five states where the incidence of babesiosis is highest—Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. The FDA estimates this will reduce the risk of transfusion-transmitted Babesia microti in the blood supply by 95%. However, this will do nothing to mitigate the risk of contracting other species of Babesia.
Recently, the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Red Cross began screening blood donations for Babesia for the State of Massachusetts as a pilot program. They will be sharing data with the FDA as they move towards a larger program. It’s a start.
For More Information on How to Diagnose and Treat Babesiosis
Watch: Dr. Richard Horowitz on Babesiosis – Norvect 2014
LymeSci is written by Lonnie Marcum, a Licensed Physical Therapist and mother of a daughter with Lyme. Follow her on Twitter: @LonnieRhea Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org .
Screening for Babesia microti in the U.S. Blood Supply
Babeosis and the U.S. Blood Supply
Transfusion-Associated Babesiosis in the United States: A Description of Cases
Fatalities Reported to FDA Following Blood Collection and Transfusion: Annual Summary for Fiscal Year 2012
Geographic Distribution and Expansion of Human Lyme Disease, United States
Geographic Expansion of Lyme Disease in Michigan, 2000–2014
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Babesiosis CSTE Position Statement
American Red Cross Participating in an Investigational Study to Test the Blood Supply for a Tick-Borne Parasite in Donated Blood
A Case of Babesiosis in Man in the United States
Coinfection by Ixodes Tick-Borne Pathogens: Ecological, Epidemiological, and Clinical Consequences
Survey of Ixodes pacificus Ticks in California Reveals a Diversity of Microorganisms and a Novel and Widespread Anaplasmataceae Species
Natural history of Zoonotic Babesia: Roll of wildlife reservoirs
Ixodes ricinus and Its Transmitted Pathogens in Urban and Peri-Urban Areas in Europe: New Hazards and Relevance for Public Health
Cost-Effectiveness of Blood Donor Screening for Babesia microti in Endemic Regions of the United States
Cost, consequence and cost-effectivness of strategies for donor screening of the U.S. blood supply
Clinical Presentation and Treatment of Transfusion-Associated Babesiosis in Premature Infants
Screening Begins for Babesiosis in Donated Blood
- March 20, 2017 at 11:13 am
A blood transfusion recipient would be wise to prophylactic Alinia to mitigate infection regardless of where the blood is coming from in the USA. Don’t dare to hope the blood supply will be screened for Borrelia.
- March 20, 2017 at 3:56 pm
My friend was prescribed Alinia at one point… its quite pricey. If poor people get lyme, there’s no way they can get cured because it takes so much money to cope while ill and get the docs, tests, meds… sad!
- March 22, 2017 at 4:35 pm
Check Canadian Pharmacies. They have much better prices. I used them for Alinia as well as Tinidazole.
- March 20, 2017 at 1:13 pm
Do they check for Bartonella, Lyme disease and all the co-infections/viruses, bacteria associated with Lyme? I bet not.
- March 20, 2017 at 3:43 pm
A friend who was lab tested ($300) positive for babesia by a LLD (off visit $450) went to her gp at palo alto medical foundation to be retested after she was treated. This appointment would be covered by insurance and so would the labwork. The docs there had a meeting and decided she could not be tested. They said the LLD was a lunatic and could not be trusted and that the patient should go get psychiatric help.
She went to give blood, thinking they would test/screen her and she could find out then, saving $750, which is a LOT of money to most of us… there was no such screening, so she didn’t donate.
- March 20, 2017 at 4:19 pm
Even if her LLD was a lunatic (BTW lunacy is a symptom of a protozoal infection in one’s brain that becomes more symptomatic on the full moon)..what does that have to do with a positive lab result?
- March 20, 2017 at 5:59 pm
Jane Smith, I was sent to a psychiatrist with blood pressure running 210/120.
- May 19, 2017 at 8:33 am
Is the high blood pressure a symptom of or caused by the lyme or babesiosis? I have been struggling with high blood pressure and air hunger for several years.
- March 20, 2017 at 4:04 pm
Why in the world is the blood not tested BEFORE it is transfused!!!!
- March 20, 2017 at 5:00 pm
They only tested for certain diseases as Lyme was never on the screening list nor is it now just the Babesiosa is on the screening form now in the five states.. even then some people are not going to recognize that name. Its up to the CDC to update their out of date research on Lyme disease and the treatment which is disgusting horrible and they deserve to be smacked. The CDC should be sending updated information out to every state and perhaps put it on the news but the question now is this of the patients that have lyme how many donated ?? For how many years?? What state and county do they live?? Then how many received blood transfusions?? Now we cant forget those that have passed away and had Lyme disease and donated.
- March 20, 2017 at 4:27 pm
Multiple people have donated blood knowing they had Lyme disease as they were told then it was fine per CDC.. others finding out later they had Lyme disease but still fine to donate per their Drs and CDC after donating several times problem is their donations have already been processed and given to patients in need for multiple years and we are talking thousands of patients as again the CDC have continued to be to far behind in their research and updating the guidelines. It wasnt until recently more discussion took place about transmission in blood as well as from mother to unborn child and now we are questioning even sexual transmission as well.
Lyme disease has become a pandemic. Its more than just those five states and multiple states are grossly under reporting as multiple Drs and providers refuse to test and furthermore multiple Drs and providers continue to refuse to treat Chronic Lyme patients doing more harm and neglect with verbal abuse towards their patients. The CDC has got to update the Lyme information immediately as well as the treatment for acute and chronic patients from experienced Lyme Drs.
- March 20, 2017 at 4:40 pm
In the same subject arena, I find it concerning that IVIG infusions pose questionable risk factors also. With approximately 10,000+ donors, it raises safety / exposure concerns.
- March 20, 2017 at 4:46 pm
I am an RN with Lyme disease and babesia for many years working very part time. Last week I had to pick up blood at our blood bank for a patient. I commented to the lab tech that it was great they screened the blood for Zika virus (it had the stamp on the label) but was a shame they did not screen for diseases like Lyme and babesia. She said ‘ oh some places screen for babesia! The only reason the blood was screened for Zika was because it came from FL. Our donors from Minnesota are screened for babesia.’ She promptly got a bag of blood from the fridge that came from MN and sure enough was a label that said, ‘ this blood has tested negative for babesiosis’. I thought that was great but I wonder what flavors of babs are tested and how many they miss in other states since it is apparently determined by region.
- March 20, 2017 at 5:21 pm
The crux of the problem exists in physicians refusal to properly assess, investigate and treat patients with chronic Lyme. They are the architects of their own demise by their steadfast disbelief ……that is until they themselves become the patient. Then, it’s a game changer. If this staunch pushback from the medical community weren’t so drastic, the subject of chronic Lyme and further research would benefit everyone involved. Instead, physicians who refuse this rightful and ethical path in practicing medicine are the problem rather than the solution.
- March 20, 2017 at 5:56 pm
I got my Lyme on a little farm in western Arkansas in 1985. My husband’s sister (same location) was symptomatic all her life. In 2006, she dropped dead suddenly at 53. Autopsies of course showed nothing. His cousin (nearby location) died recently of human granulocytic anaplasmosis. He was sick only a couple of weeks.
- March 20, 2017 at 6:58 pm
I’m so sorry to hear of your familial losses. If the medical community would wake up and acknowledge this dreadful disease, we wouldn’t be in this position. Countless physicians are vehemently dismissive until they are personally afflicted. Shouldn’t be the case but it’s the reality. How many more must die before the tide turns in working together as a collaborative effort to find a solution?
- March 20, 2017 at 9:22 pm
I am pretty sure my entire family is infected with babesia. I think we were born with it. I have 5 siblings and they have all had strange sicknesses that can match up with babesia. Now I am married and have 3 kids of my own and I am pretty sure we all have this too.( We have a psychiatrist helping us thank goodness) When my husband and I and one son, who has been really sick, take herbal treatment we feel better, but we are not cured. My other 2 daughters and all of my siblings have not bought into this, so they suffer, some more than others. It is a shame that the blood labs don’t look at the blood long enough to find babesia. Even specialty labs say they can only find it 25% of the time and Lyme literate doctors treat off of symptoms and can be of help for families like ours. I am glad they are doing studies, but I can assure you they are way underestimating this problem. My husband was in a mental hospital due to the way it has affected his brain and my son had a diagnosis of severe idiopathic gastroperesis, and many other diagnosis’s that are all helped with his herbal treatment. All of his diagnosis, were cover ups for the real cause, babesia.
I have begun to help others who have sicknesses that will not go away and so far have helped a few others, one with so called fibromyalgia an another 2 with cyclical vomiting. They are being helped with herbal treatment as well. One is a 75 year old woman who has been sick almost her entire life. What a sigh of relief that she is being helped. This is a HUUUUUGE problem. I am sure there are many families like mine. None, knowing that they have this sickness because there are too many negative blood results. Many have probably or will probably give blood. I would sacrifice my life to help others figure all of this out, that is how strongly I feel about this issue. If anyone needs a test person, let me know as a case study. I can’t offer my entire family, but I would offer myself to stop this huge ignorant problem.
- May 29, 2017 at 3:40 pm
I also have the entire coinfection list for seven years. Just recently I learned about Scalar Energy’s fantastic results in eradication pathogens of all kinds. I researched on line at selfhealgo.com and enrolled in sessions. The people are so helpful and treatment is easy. I know the infections are gone. It will take a while to heal my tissues and organs.
- March 21, 2017 at 3:56 am
Red cross called me after I was diagnosed with Lyme and I told them I had a positive diagnosis for Lyme and did not feel I should continue donating. I was told they didn’t see any reason that that I couldn’t continue to donate. I told the person on the phone that I personally didn’t feel that it was the right thing to do since the disease was in my blood and I knew that my blood went a children’s hospital. How awful would I feel for those children? They continued to call me until I finally told them to just take my name off the donor list. They acted like I was the bad guy.
- March 21, 2017 at 8:33 am
We have been silent too long. If Lyme & its co-infections start showing up in donated blood… so be it. Watch how quickly a reliable test is found once it starts spreading. The CDC will reap what it sows in the end. I say donate blood!
- March 21, 2017 at 10:20 am
We can’t continue to donate knowing that we may spread this disease to innocent people. Just because it has been an uphill battle those of us that know we are sick, it isn’t fair to condemn others to the same fate. What happens to the innocent children that need blood? They didn’t ask to be treated this way. Should we tell HIV patients to just go out and donate? We have to protect those people that aren’t infected?
- March 21, 2017 at 8:49 am
I’m very ill today so please understand that the tone in my comment is relative to how bad I feel at the moment. I too have Lyme and Babesiosis. I was only diagnosed a year ago even though i’ve had symptoms for many years. My symptoms improved greatly with treatment and I felt quite well , though not 100 percent, over the holidays and then I suddenly began feeling exhausted and all my symptoms slowly returned as if I had never received any treatment. I’m currently enduring the worst herxheimer reaction and feeling so utterly fed up and hopeless. I’m just plain worn out. After reading the comments below I feel angry and even more hopeless. The ignorance , sheer ignorance, in the medical establishment is appalling and borders on malpractice when any healthcare worker chooses not to question the ‘establishment’ and educate themselves.
Last fall I visited a doctor and the nurse asked if I had any allergies and when I told her that I could not take any fluoroquinolones she asked what they were. After I educated her, she then told me that they are perfectly safe and she prescribes them all the time. I said, ‘ That’s great, just don’t give them to me. Do you understand that?” Some health care workers are so on the defensive that they will ignore commonsense and logic in lieu of patient safety. These are not the type of people I want ‘helping’ me and why I don’t trust most physicians to do no harm. I’ve been harmed enough by American Medicine and to be frank, it’s a miracle that I’m alive today to even write this.
- March 21, 2017 at 8:55 am
After finding out I had Lyme Disease the first thing I did was contact the blood bank where I had donated blood. They told me “it’s okay, as long as I was not on antibiotics at the time” I donated. It upsets me to think I may have exposed someone to this horrible disease.
- March 21, 2017 at 9:11 am
The crazy thing is that I was going to be dismissed by my GP for treating myself for Lyme which according to him I didn’t have, but then the Red Cross won’t allow me to donate blood because I do have Lyme.
- March 22, 2017 at 12:37 am
I was bitten in early summer of 1990 while lying in the sun in Big Rapids, north of Grand Rapids. They had commercials warning about deer ticks since 1988, where is that data? Am I even in their statistics? Was I even reported? I can’t find any help at all. I have been getting the comment “You are too young for all of those symptoms.” from every physician (at least 8) for the last 27 years! I am getting sick of that look, like I am a hypochondriac. No one is educated in how to treat this disease. I donated plasma for 3 years, from 1994-1998 and no one said anything to me about anything being in it. They told me I could no longer donate because the rules regarding a stomach ulcer had changed.
- July 29, 2017 at 6:20 pm
Thank you Lonnie Marcum for this great article. The could even be much higher in my opinion. David R Thomas
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