New tickborne illness crawls into Hudson Valley
Jackie Moore moved to Briarcliff Manor in the summer of 2008 and enjoyed her first days there picking raspberries in the woods behind her home.
Then she started to feel unusually tired and irritated. Her neck and shoulder ached. Soon she was wracked with raging fevers, nightsweats and excruciating headaches.
"Every day I was twice as sick as I was the day before," the marathoner and personal trainer recalled. "I was just getting to the point where I couldn't get out of bed."
Doctors diagnosed Lyme disease in Moore, now 37 — and days later diagnosed a second tickborne disease she'd never heard of: babesiosis.
The malaria-like illness is a red-blood-cell parasite that has killed up to 5 percent of people hospitalized in the state for it, according to three studies of patients with the disease (pronounced BUH-bee-zee-o-sis).
Moore, who was more susceptible to a severe case because she has had her spleen removed, did not initially respond to drugs.
"I remember feeling terrified," she said. "I remember feeling that I didn't know if I was going to make it."
Finally, after getting treatment at Westchester Medical Center and following a drug regimen for several months, Moore recovered.
"It was honestly one, if not the worst, experiences of my life," she said, noting she is now much more careful about ticks. "I would never, ever want anyone to go through what I went through."
Moore's bout with babesiosis, which until 2001 was historically found in New England and on Eastern Long Island, is among the growing number of cases in the Lower Hudson Valley.
Doctors at New York Medical College in Valhalla have been tracking the disease's sudden appearance in this area and its twentyfold incident increase since 2001 that's easily outpacing the rest of the state.
In 2001, there were six recorded cases of babesiosis in Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, Rockland, Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties.
That skyrocketed to 119 by 2008, with most reports emerging on the east side of the Hudson River, according to a study in the May issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, a journal published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
"It is something of concern. It is a potentially deadly disease," said Dr. Julie Joseph, the study's lead author and an assistant professor of infectious diseases at New York Medical College. "Based on what we've seen, we are expecting it will continue to rise."
Dr. Gary Wormser, chief of infectious disease at Westchester Medical Center, who also worked on the study, cautioned against panicking, however.
"There is no reason to make people crazy," he said, pointing out that the number of cases is low. "It's just meant to make people aware."
Dutchess County has seen the biggest jump, with 62 babesiosis incidents in 2008, compared to just two in 2001. Westchester County had 36 reported cases in 2008, up from three in 2001. Putnam's number grew from one to six during the same period, and Rockland, which had no babesiosis reports in 2001, posted three in 2008.
Westchester County had 59 cases in 2009 and 34 last year, while Putnam had three in 2009 and 10 last year. Rockland had four in 2009 and one last year, health officials said.
Since babesiosis testing on ticks across New York began a few years ago, about 2 percent to 3 percent have tested positive for the disease, according to the state Health Department.
Meanwhile, Westchester Medical Center treated 19 babesiosis patients from 2002-09, including a 95-year-old man who died, researchers said. They also noted that, in addition to tick bites, people have contracted babesiosis from blood transfusions. It can also pass from an infected mother to a baby during pregnancy or delivery.
While Lyme disease, the area's most common tick-borne illness, has distinct symptoms such as a bull's-eye rash and joint pain, babesiosis has more vague symptoms and can only be diagnosed with lab tests. Symptoms generally start one to three weeks after infection from a tick bite and they include fever, chills, muscle aches and anemia.
People with babesiosis may also have Lyme disease, doctors said. An infection with ehrlichiosis, another tickborne illness in the region transmitted by the same tick, is possible, but not common, they said. Ehrlichiosis is a potentially fatal bacterial infection that causes fever, headache, chills, nausea and confusion.
Some people get babesiosis and show no symptoms and require no treatment. But people older than 50 or with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients or those with no spleens, are more likely to get very sick, Wormser said.
Patients can die, he said, when the disease disrupts lung, kidney or heart function. Doctors are still stumped about how it traveled to the Lower Hudson Valley. It is transmitted by the same tick — the deer tick — that carries Lyme disease, and the strain of babesia that causes most human infections is found in mice.
"We weren't sure exactly how it got here and why it seems to be fairly widespread once it got here," Wormser said. "It's in the entire east of the Hudson River. How did that happen and why wasn't it in the year 1999 or 2000? That's peculiar."
Moore said the rise in babesiosis reiterates why people should take precautions when going outside.
"I would want people to know these dangers exist and to live their lives the way they are, but with a raised level of awareness so they can keep themselves and their families safe," she said.