A little-known and rare tick-borne disease is on the rise in the US. Known as anaplasmosis, the bacterial disease is spread to people by tick bites, primarily from the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) and the western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus), two species associated with the better-known infection of Lyme disease.
Health officials in New York’s Onondaga County recently reported an unexpected case of anaplasmosis in Central New York. They also explained that recent years have seen an uptick (excuse the pun) of cases of this once-rare disease in the area. While a total of three cases were reported in Onondaga County from 2015 to 2020, there have been six reported cases so far this year.
“In New York state, the disease is spread by the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), which is the same type of tick that typically spreads Lyme disease,” Dr Indu Gupta, health commissioner of Onondaga County, said in a statement. “If we are diligent in practicing the same prevention measures we’ve learned to prevent Lyme disease, we are protecting ourselves from other tickborne diseases including anaplasmosis.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests a similar rise of anaplasmosis is being seen across the country. According to their statistics, 348 cases in the year 2000 to a peak of 5,762 in 2017. However, cases were substantially lower in 2018 (the latest annual statistic available). It appears the disease is most prevalent in the upper midwestern and northeastern US, especially among people who live near or spend time in known white-tailed deer habitats where the ticks thrive.
Anaplasmosis was first recognized as a human disease in the US during the 1990s. Symptoms of the disease include a fever, headache, chills, and muscle aches according to the CDC. If treatment is delayed or the infected person has underlying health conditions, anaplasmosis can cause severe illness involving respiratory failure, bleeding problems, organ failure, and – in rare instances – death. Fortunately, however, prompt treatment with the antibiotic doxycycline can prevent severe illness.
Anaplasmosis isn’t the only tick-borne disease people should be wary of this summer. Some experts are anticipating this year to see a significant rise in Lyme disease cases as a result of people eagerly heading to the great outdoors after a year of lockdowns and COVID-19 prevention measures.
There are a few things you can do to avoid catching anaplasmosis, as well as any tick-borne disease, such as Lyme disease and Powassan virus. First and foremost, take care when you're outdoors and try to avoid grassy, brushy, or wooded areas where ticks tend to live. Mowing your lawn often and removing brush from your garden can further reduce this risk. As an extra layer of protection, you can also treat your clothing and gear with products containing 0.5% permethrin, an insecticide used to treat scabies and lice. Health authorities also advise people to check their bodies for ticks and shower after spending time in areas where ticks are suspected to lurk.
If you find a tick attached to your skin, there’s no need to panic – but you should remove the tick as soon as possible using a pair of tweezers. Keep an eye on the site of the bite, and if you notice a rash appear within a couple of weeks then you should visit a doctor.