Some patients who are experiencing flulike symptoms — particularly elderly individuals — might actually be afflicted with babesiosis, a malaria-like disease caused by infection of red blood cells by a protozoan called Babesia. This parasite is spread by ticks, with the peak transmission period being May through September.

Babesia are related to the parasites that cause malaria. Although infections can be asymptomatic, they can also cause mild fever, chills and aches as well as other flulike symptoms. Severe complications, including multiorgan failure and death, mostly occur in the elderly, newborns and persons who are immunocompromised or do not have a spleen.

A recent analysis of clinical babesiosis in persons aged 65 years and older revealed that 985 Medicare patients had babesiosis in 2006 and 851 in 2007, but 1,223 had the disease in 2008 (Emerg Infect Dis. 2012;18:128-131).

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The highest rates of babesiosis were found in persons aged 65 years and older who were living in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island or Massachusetts. The infections appear to be on the rise in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.

Ticks are also causing another problem in the Northeast — according to disease ecologist Richard S. Ostfeld, PhD, of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., this region can expect a surge in Lyme disease this spring.

The problem began with a cyclical scarcity of acorns. A dearth of acorns reduces the population of white-footed mice, which are the preferred hosts of black-legged ticks. These ticks carry Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. With fewer mice off of which to feed, the ticks will be biting more humans, predicted Ostfeld.