Walkers warned to watch out for ticks after potentially deadly parasite found in British sheep

While testing sheep in the North of Scotland, scientists from the University of Glasgow have detected the tick-borne organism Babesia Venatorum, which can infect humans and has potentially serious consequences if left untreated.

Doctors are urging anyone working or walking in the countryside, particularly in Scotland, to cover their legs properly and use insect repellent following the discovery of ticks carrying a parasite that had never previously been seen in the UK.

Extensively recorded in China and, more recently, in Europe, Babesia venatorum can infect people, giving flu-like symptoms that can be cured if rapidly and accurately diagnosed — but if untreated can lead to hemolytic anaemia, jaundice and, potentially, death. Now, scientists from the University of Glasgow have found it in ‘a large number’ of sheep in the North of Scotland.

This is the first time the organism has been detected in the UK — the Scottish researchers believe it may have made its way here with migratory birds coming from Scandinavia, where it has been previously reported. It’s also the very first time Babesia Venatorum is identified in sheep anywhere in the world. The infected animals showed no sign of disease, leading researchers to consider them as carriers.

‘Our study reveals that sheep can be a natural host for [this parasite] in the UK, which is surprising since we believed roe deer to be the main mammalian host in Europe,’ says the study’s lead author Alex Gray. And because sheep are normally transported and sold across long distances, the organism could easily be spreading across the country and continental Europe, leading Dr Gray to call for ‘ongoing active surveillance’ in UK livestock.

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Crucially, people working or visiting the countryside should also take special precautions. ‘The presence of [this parasite] in the UK represents a new risk to humans working, living, or hiking in areas with infected ticks and livestock, particularly sheep,’ cautions Willie Weir, Senior University Clinician in Veterinary Pathology, Public Health & Disease Investigation at the University of Glasgow.

‘Although we believe the threat to humans to be low, nevertheless local health and veterinary professionals will need to be aware of [it], if the health risk from tick-borne disease in the UK is to be fully understood.’

The Babesia venatorum finding comes right after the discovery of ticks carrying the encephalitis virus, which causes a life-threatening swelling of the human brain. This not only means that people should be especially watchful in rural areas but also that ‘the landscape of tick-borne pathogens in the UK’ is changing, according to Dr Weir, who warns: ‘The underlying causes for this need to be investigated.’