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Residents and visitors urged to be tick aware as first UK-acquired case of babesiosis is identified in Devon

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Devon’s Public Health team has issued a warning to residents and visitors to be ‘tick aware’ as the first UK-acquired case babesiosis is identified in Devon.

Babesiosis is a rare infection caused by a tiny parasite which infects red blood cells and is spread by the bite of an infected tick. It is diagnosed by examining blood samples under a microscope.

Most people with babesiosis will have either no symptoms or mild symptoms of infection, but people with weakened immune systems can become very poorly and present with flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, muscle ache, fatigue, and jaundice.

Previously fewer than 10 cases of babesiosis have been diagnosed in the UK to date and all have been imported infections.

Public Health England (PHE) regularly undertakes work to understand the potential risks of tick-borne infections in England and this year surveyed sites in Devon close to where the person with babesiosis lives, collecting and testing hundreds of ticks – all tested negative for the parasite which causes babesiosis.

Dr Katherine Russell, Consultant in the Emerging Infections and Zoonoses team at PHE, said:

“It is important to emphasise that cases of babesiosis in England are rare and the risk of being infected remains very low. Lyme disease remains the most common tick-borne infection in England.

“Ticks are most active between spring and autumn, so it is sensible to take some precautions to avoid being bitten when enjoying the outdoors. Seek medical advice if you start to feel unwell after a tick bite.”

Ticks are small, spider like creatures that feed on the blood of animals, including
people. They can vary in size, from as small as a tiny freckle to a similar size to a baked bean.

Ticks can survive in many habitats but prefer moist areas with leaf litter or longer grass like in woodland, glassland, moorland, healthland and some urban parks and gardens.

They don’t fly or jump, they just wait on vegetation for an animal or person to pass by, and then climb on. They then bite and attach to the skin and feed on blood for several days before dropping off.

Most tick bites are harmless, and the risk of babesiosis for the general public is very low, however a number of infections can develop following a tick bite, including Lyme Disease, so it’s important to take precautions to reduce your risk of being bitten.

Dr Virginia Pearson, Devon’s Director of Public Health, said: 

“With lots of us making the most of the warm weather and spending longer outside enjoying the moors, woodlands and coastal paths, we are more likely to come into contact with ticks.

“And while the risk of contracting babesiosis or Lyme disease is very low, we need to be aware of what to look out for and how to protect ourselves and our families.

“Ticks are most prevalent in late spring, summer and autumn, so there are plenty of them around at the moment.

“Walking on clearly defined path, using insect repellent that contains DEET and covering up in long sleeved shirts and trousers will help reduce the risk of being bitten by ticks, and wearing light coloured clothing will make them easier to spot on you.

“Make sure you look and feel for ticks on you, your family and your pets after you’ve enjoyed outdoor activities and remove them promptly as evidence suggests the risk increases the longer a tick is feeding.”

how to remove a tick graphic - tweezers pull straight upIf you do get bitten by a tick, it should be removed as soon as possible using fine tipped tweezers or a tick removal tool (sold by many outdoor stores, vets and pharmacies). Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull upwards slowly and firmly. Once removed, wash your skin with water and soap, and apply an antiseptic cream to the skin around the bite.

Look out for early signs of Lyme disease, which include mild-flu like symptoms including a fever, headache, fatigue and a bulls-eye rash. If you feel unwell after being bitten by a tick, even when you don’t have a rash contact your GP and remember to tell them you were bitten by a tick or have recently spent time outdoors. Go to hospital if you get a stiff neck and a severe headache; get pain when looking at bright lights; have a seizure (fit); have a change in behaviour – such as sudden confusion or develop weakness or loss of movement in part of the body.

There’s lots of useful information in this leaflet from Public Health England.