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Each year 150 million dollars is lost to Australias beef and dairy industries because of cattle tick infecting our cattle. Cattle ticks are ecto-parasites which live in the coat of the cattle and suck their blood. By doing this, many diseases like tick fever can be transferred causing poor health, and the effects can be fatal. Tick fever is a malaria-like disease and is described by Peter Willadsen as having produced one of the biggest disasters in our agricultural history.


It is not unusual for 1000 female ticks to be found on one cow at a time. Together they can suck more than ½ a litre of blood in one day. The female ticks then drop to the ground to reproduce producing another cycle of ticks to infest cattle.


Tick fever or red water is an important disease of cattle and up to 7 million animals in northern and eastern parts of Australia are potentially at risk. Tick fever vaccines are the most reliable and practical tools for long term control of the disease and are manufactured by the Tick Fever Research Centre (TFRC) of the Department of Primary Industries, Queensland, Australia.


These pages provide information about the disease, its management, diagnosis, treatment and prevention by vaccination.


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Tick fever (babesiosis) is an important disease of cattle with up to 7 million animals in northern and eastern parts of Australia potentially at risk. The disease was probably introduced as early as 18 with cattle from Indonesia infested with the cattle tick Boophilus microplus.


The initial spread of tick fever in the late 1800s had a devastating effect on the cattle industry. In Queensland alone, it caused cattle numbers to decrease from 5.5 million to .5 million in little more than a decade. Since


that time, improved methods of control have done much to limit the effect of the disease but it is still costing as much as A$8 million each year in lost production.


Cause


Babesiosis is caused by two organisms in Australia Babesia bovis and Babesia bigemina. Of the two species, B bovis is by far the most important cause of disease and mortality, causing about 80 per cent of outbreaks and an even higher percentage of deaths. Both Babesia species are single cell organisms that develop in the red blood cells of cattle and are transmitted in Australia by the cattle tick Boophilus microplus. Transmission of B bovis takes place when engorging adult female ticks pick up the infection, pass it on to their progeny (larval or seed ticks) which, in turn, pass it on when feeding on another animal. Transmission of B bigemina is also from one generation of ticks to the next but with engorging adult ticks picking up the infection and nymphal and adult stages of the next generation passing it on to other cattle.


Occurrence and spread


Babesiosis is only found in eastern and northern parts of Australia where the cattle tick is present. One infected tick is sufficient to transmit the infection but only a very small number of ticks actually carry the disease. In the case of B bovis, as few as 1 in 5000 ticks may be infected compared with 1 in 500 with B bigemina. As a result, the presence of


B bigemina organisms is usually more prevalent in infected herds.


Animal susceptibility


British and European breeds are very susceptible and mortality after infection with Babesia species can be high. Bos indicus breeds such as Brahman, Sahiwal and, to a lesser extent, crossbred cattle show resistance to the disease but, despite this, nearly one in five outbreaks of tick fever involves these breeds.Calves from immune mothers receive temporary protection (maternal antibody) from the colostrum (first milk) which


prevents babesiosis. This protection lasts about three months and, in most cases, is followed by an age resistance which lasts until the animals are about nine months old. Calves exposed to infection when the maternal or age resistance is high rarely show clinical symptoms but develop a solid, long-lasting immunity. It is therefore possible to have both Babesia organisms and cattle ticks present on a property without animal losses or clinical disease. This situation is known as endemic stability.On the other hand, if cattle are not exposed to babesiosis as calves, the age resistance gradually wanes with time and these animals will become susceptible to infection. If exposed to the disease later in life, they may well develop a severe, life-threatening infection. Losses are likely when tick numbers on a property increase or when susceptible cattle are brought onto a tick-infested property.As B bovis has lower infection rates in ticks than B bigemina, endemic stability is less likely to develop to this organism than to B bigemina.


Clinical signs


Disease caused by B bovis is normally severe and large numbers of cattle can get sick and die.


ɨ Fever (higher than 40oC) is usually present for several days before other signs become obvious.


ɨ Loss of appetite, depression, weakness and a reluctance to move normally follow a fever.


ɨ Red urine (haemoglobinuria) is often present and, in the latter stage of infection, also anaemia and jaundice.


ɨ Diarrhoea is common.


ɨ Pregnant cows may abort.


ɨ Death may occur within days of the onset of fever.


ɨ Nervous signs sometimes develop in a condition known as cerebral babesiosis. These symptoms include hypersensitivity, circling, head pressing, aggression, convulsions and paralysis. When nervous symptoms develop, the outcome is almost always fatal.


Disease caused by B bigemina is usually less severe but can develop very rapidly.


ɨ Sudden and severe anaemia, jaundice and death can occur with little warning.


ɨ Red urine is present earlier and more consistently than in B bovis infections.


ɨ Nervous signs are not seen.


Cattle that recover from either infection may take several weeks to regain condition but recovery is usually complete. Surviving bulls may have reduced fertility for several weeks.In mild infections, signs are less obvious and sometimes even difficult to detect. Calves often show no symptoms after infection.


Post mortem examination


In severe infections, congestion of most organs is intense with haemorrhages under the membranes of many internal organs. Prolonged cases may show signs of anaemia and jaundice. Light to dark red discolouration of the urine is often seen. The spleen is usually enlarged, sometimes several times its normal size, and the cut surface resembles raspberry jam. The liver is swollen and may be yellowish-brown, with the gall bladder containing large amounts of thick granular bile. The kidneys and lymph nodes are also enlarged. In cerebral babesiosis, the grey matter in the brain has a characteristic cherry-pink colour.Microscopically, B bovis infections cause massive numbers of infected red blood cells to accumulate in the small blood vessels of the animal. This is not the case with


B bigemina.


Diagnosis


The history of the cattle, clinical signs and post mortem lesions are often suggestive of babesiosis but it is impossible to make an accurate diagnosis based on these findings alone. The simplest method to confirm the infection is by laboratory examination of stained blood smears from sick animals. Even blood smears and organ smears from dead animals can be useful. Laboratory examination will also distinguish between


B bovis and B bigemina infections, an important feature when considering prognosis and control. See Tick fever diagnostic services for an overview of diagnostic methods, and Making blood smears for tick fever diagnosis and How to make organ smears for tick fever diagnosis for information on how to prepare these smears.


Treatment; control of outbreaks


The only drug available for use in the treatment of babesiosis in Australia is Imizol® (imidocarb). Note Imizol® has a 8-day withholding period in cattle and is not registered in Australia for use in lactating dairy cattle. Recovery is the rule if treatment is given early in the course of the infection. However, if treatment is delayed, supportive therapy may be essential if the animal is to survive. This includes the use of blood supplements, vitamins, intravenous administration of fluids, good nutrition and shade. In acute B. bovis infections, antioxidants, e.g. Vitamin E, and high doses of corticosteroids may prove helpful.For control of outbreaks, see Control of suspected tick fever outbreaks in cattle.


Prevention


There are several options for the prevention of babesiosis in Australia ranging from keeping animals tick-free, use of Imizol for short-term control, to vaccinating with tick fever vaccine. These


What is tick fever?


Tick fever is a disease of cattle caused by any one of three blood organisms transmitted by the cattle tick (Boophilus microplus) in Australia. These organisms are known as


ɨ Babesia bovis, a cause of red water


ɨ Babesia bigemina, another cause of red water


ɨ Anaplasma marginale, the cause of anaplasmosis.


An outbreak of the disease can cause loss of production and death in cattle.


What are the symptoms of tick fever?


Common symptoms exhibited by affected stock can include fever, loss of appetite, gradual or rapid loss of condition, dullness/depression, weakness, staggered walk, muscle tremors, pale membranes (anaemia), yellowing (jaundice), red or dark brown urine, nervous signs such as charging and/or head pressing.





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