Feature

Health scare of the week: A parasite in blood transfusions

Babesiosis, a parasitic infection with malaria-like symptoms, is carried by ticks and can be spread by infected blood donors.

A potentially deadly tick-borne disease is posing a growing threat to the U.S. blood supply. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that babesiosis, a parasitic infection with malaria-like symptoms, has been passed on through blood transfusions to at least 122 people since 2000. The problem is that blood donors “can be infected and not know it,” the CDC’s Barbara Herwaldt tells The Wall Street Journal. Though babesiosis can cause fever, chills, organ failure, and death in some patients—especially those with fragile immune systems, such as newborns and the elderly—other carriers show no symptoms at all, and donors are not routinely screened for the parasite.

Ticks spread babesiosis mostly during the spring and summer, in the Northeast and Midwest, but donated blood stores can pass it on year-round and nationwide. The threat is serious enough that some experts say blood banks should start examining all donated blood under a microscope for signs of the disease, no matter how slow and labor-intensive that process would be. Babesiosis, says New York University immunologist Philip Tierno, “is something to be reckoned with.”

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