African tick bite fever

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African tick bite fever
African tick bite fever - leg lesion.jpg
Leg lesion after Rickettsia africae infection
Specialty Infectious disease

African tick bite fever (ATBF) is a disease caused by the bacterium Rickettsia africae in sub-Saharan Africa and the West Indies.[1] The bacterium is spread by ticks of the Amblyomma type.[2] Symptoms are not always present.[3] When present they may include fever, headache, rash, and dead tissue at bite sites.[3] These generally occur within 4–10 days of a tick bite.[3] Symptoms generally resolve within 3 weeks. Severe complications are rare.[1]

African tick bite fever is a type of spotted fever. The diagnosis is typically based on symptoms. It can be confirmed by culture, PCR, or immunofluorescence.[4] Data about the appropriate treatment of African tick bite fever is limited.[5] Symptoms tend to be mild and often resolve on their own. However, when people seek treatment, antibiotics maybe used such as with other rickettsial infections, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever.[2]

Signs and symptoms[edit]

African tick bite fever is often asymptomatic or mild in clinical presentation and complications are rare.[1] The onset of illness is typically 5–7 days after a tick bite[2] though the range of symptom onset is 4–10 days.[6] Symptoms can persist for several days to up to three weeks.[1] Common presenting symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Inoculation eschar, which is dead, often black, tissue around a bite site (see photo above)
    • Eschars may or may not be present. Amblyomma ticks actively attack cattle or humans and can bite more than once.[3] In African tick bite fever, unlike what is typically seen with other Rickettsial spotted fevers when only one eschar is identified, multiple eschars may be seen and are considered pathognomonic.[6]
  • Swollen lymph nodes near the site of the bite
  • Maculopapular and/or vesicular rash[2]


Complications are rare and are not life-threatening.[6] No deaths due to African tick bite fever have been reported.[3] Reported complications include:



Rickettsia africae is a gram-negative, obligate intracellular, pleomorphic bacterium.[6] It belongs to the Rickettsia genus, which includes many bacterial species that are transmitted to humans by arthropods.[7]



In Sub-Saharan Africa, the most common vectors of R. africae are two species of hard ticks, Amblyomma variegatum and Amblyomma hebraeum. Other species of Amblyomma in sub-Saharan Africa can also transmit R. africae and it may be that up to 100% of Amblyomma ticks in sub-Saharan Africa carry R. africae.[2] Amblyomma ticks are most active from November to April.[8] These tick species frequently feed on cattle and other livestock, but can also be found feeding on wild animals in areas where farm animals are not found.[6] Unlike other hard tick species, which passively seek hosts, the Amblyomma hard ticks actively seek out hosts. These ticks are known to be more aggressive, and several ticks may attack at once, leading to clusters of African tick bite fever cases within groups of persons traveling or working together.[9][10]

Up until 1998, it was thought that only ticks in sub-Saharan Africa carried R. africae. However, a case of locally transmitted African tick bite fever in the French West Indies led to the discovery of R. africae within Amblyomma variegatum ticks on Guadelupe Island. Now, R. africae has been isolated from ticks on several Caribbean islands, though the only cases in humans in the Caribbean have occurred in the French West Indies.[2] Recently, R. africae has also been found in Amblyomma loculosum ticks in Oceania.[3]


After the rickettsia bacteria infects humans through a tick bite, it invades endothelial cells in the circulatory system (veins, arteries, capillaries).[11] The body then releases chemicals that cause inflammation, resulting in the characteristic symptoms like headache and fever. The hallmark of all rickettsial diseases is a histology (cellular) finding called lymphohistiocytic vasculitis[12] that involves immune cell deposition into the endothelial cells that make up vessels.[6] This occurs secondary to the chemicals mentioned above, as well as damage from the infection, and involves signals to immune cells (T cells and macrophages) to come to the site of the infection.[13]

Rickettsia bacteria species like R. africae replicate around the area of the initial tick bite, causing necrosis (cell death) and lymph node inflammation.[11] This is the cause of the characteristic eschar.[11]


Many patients with ATBF who live in areas with a high number of infections (Africa and the West Indies) do not visit a doctor, as most patients only have mild symptoms.[1] This disease can, however, cause more serious symptoms in travelers who have never been exposed to the Rickettsia africae bacterium before and are not immune.[14] Travelers who present to a doctor after a trip to affected areas can be hard to diagnose, as many tropical diseases cause a fever similar to that of ATBF.[15] Other diseases that may look similar are malaria, dengue fever, tuberculosis, acute HIV and respiratory infections.[15] In addition to questions about symptoms, doctors will ask patients for an accurate travel history and whether he/she was near animals or ticks.[15] Microbiological tests are available for doctors, but are expensive and often must be done by special laboratories.[4]

The antibiotic treatment available for rickettsiae infections has very few side affects, so if a doctor has a high suspicion of the disease, he or she may simply treat without doing more laboratory tests.[5]

Blood tests[edit]

Diagnosis of ATBF is mostly based on symptoms, as many laboratory tests are not specific for ATBF. Common laboratory test signs of ATBF are a low white blood cell count (lymphopenia) and low platelet count (thrombocytopenia), a high C-reactive protein, and mildly high liver function tests.[4]

Microbiological tests[edit]

Biopsies or cultures of a person's tick wound (eschar) are used to diagnose ATBF. However, this requires special culture media and can only be done by a laboratory with biohazard protection.[4] There are more specialized laboratory tests available that use quantitative polymerase chain reactions (qPCR), but can only be done by laboratories with special equipment.[4] Immunofluorescence assays can also be used, but are hard to interpret because of cross-reactions with other rickettsiae bacteria.[2]


African tick bite fever is usually mild, and most patients do not need more than at-home treatment with antibiotics for their illness.[1] However, because so few patients with this infection visit a doctor, the best antibiotic choice, dose and length of treatment are not well known.[2] Typically doctors treat this disease with antibiotics that have been used effectively for the treatment of other diseases caused by bacteria of similar species, such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.[2]


For mild cases, patients are usually treated with one of the following:

  1. doxycycline
  2. chloramphenicol
  3. ciprofloxacin[1]

If a person has more severe symptoms, like a high fever or serious headache, the infection can be treated with doxycycline for a longer amount of time.[6] Pregnant women should not use doxycycline or ciprofloxacin as both antibiotics can cause problems in fetuses.[16] Josamycin has been used effectively for treatment of pregnant women with other rickettsial diseases, but it is unclear if it has a role in the treatment of ATBF.[6]


Prevention of ATBF centers around protecting oneself from tick bites by wearing long pants and shirt, and using insecticides like DEET on the skin.[6] Travelers to rural areas in Africa and the West Indies should be aware that they may come in contact with ATBF tick vectors.[6] Infection is more likely to occur in people who are traveling to rural areas or plan to spend time participating in outdoor activities. Extra caution should be taken in November - April, when Amblyomma ticks are more active.[17] Inspection of the body, clothing, gear, and any pets after time outdoors can help to identify and remove ticks early.[17]


Cases of African tick bite fever have been more frequently reported in the literature among international travelers.[6] Data examining rates in local populations are limited.[6] Among locals who live in endemic areas, exposure at a young age and mild symptoms or lack of symptoms, as well as decreased access to diagnostic tools, may lead to decreased diagnosis.[18] In Zimbabwe, where R. africae is endemic, one study reported an estimated yearly incidence of 60-80 cases per 10,000 patients.[6][18]

Looking at published data over the past 35 years, close to 200 confirmed cases of African tick bite fever in international travelers have been reported. The majority (~80%) of these cases occurred in travelers returning from South Africa.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Chapter 174. Rickettsial Diseases | Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 18e | AccessMedicine | McGraw-Hill Medical". Retrieved 2016-12-01. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Parola, Philippe; Paddock, Christopher D.; Socolovschi, Cristina; Labruna, Marcelo B.; Mediannikov, Oleg; Kernif, Tahar; Abdad, Mohammad Yazid; Stenos, John; Bitam, Idir (2013-10-01). "Update on Tick-Borne Rickettsioses around the World: a Geographic Approach". Clinical Microbiology Reviews. 26 (4): 657–702. ISSN 0893-8512. PMC 3811236Freely accessible. PMID 24092850. doi:10.1128/CMR.00032-13. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Jeremy Farrar; Peter Hotez; Thomas Junghanss; Gagandeep Kang; David Lalloo; Nicholas J. White (2013). Manson's Tropical Diseases. Elsevier Health Sciences. p. 279. ISBN 9780702051029. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Binder, William (2015). "African Tick-Bite Fever in a Returning Traveler". The Journal of Emergency Medicine. 48: 562–565. doi:10.1016/j.jemermed.2014.12.044. 
  5. ^ a b Jensenius, Mogens; Fournier, Pierre-Edouard; Raoult, Didier (2004-11-15). "Rickettsioses and the international traveler". Clinical Infectious Diseases. 39 (10): 1493–1499. ISSN 1537-6591. PMID 15546086. doi:10.1086/425365. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Jensenius M, Fournier PE, Kelly P, Myrvang B, Raoult D (September 2003). "African tick bite fever". Lancet Infect Dis. 3 (9): 557–64. PMID 12954562. doi:10.1016/S1473-3099(03)00739-4. 
  7. ^ Perlman, Steve J; Hunter, Martha S; Zchori-Fein, Einat (2006-09-07). "The emerging diversity of Rickettsia". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 273 (1598): 2097–2106. ISSN 0962-8452. PMC 1635513Freely accessible. PMID 16901827. doi:10.1098/rspb.2006.3541. 
  8. ^ "African Tick-Bite Fever | Disease Directory | Travelers' Health | CDC". Retrieved 2016-12-07. 
  9. ^ Fournier PE, Roux V, Caumes E, Donzel M, Raoult D (1998). "Outbreak of Rickettsia africae infections in participants of an adventure race in South Africa". Clin Infect Dis. 27 (2): 316–23. doi:10.1086/514664. 
  10. ^ Caruso, G.; Zasio, C.; Guzzo, F.; Granata, C.; Mondardini, V.; Guerra, E.; Macrì, E.; Benedetti, P. (2002-02-01). "Outbreak of African tick-bite fever in six Italian tourists returning from South Africa". European Journal of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases. 21 (2): 133–136. ISSN 0934-9723. PMID 11939395. doi:10.1007/s10096-001-0663-3. 
  11. ^ a b c Valbuena, Gustavo; Walker, David H. (2016-12-05). "Infection of the endothelium by members of the order Rickettsiales". Thrombosis and haemostasis. 102 (6): 1071–1079. ISSN 0340-6245. PMC 2913309Freely accessible. PMID 19967137. doi:10.1160/TH09-03-0186. 
  12. ^ Procop, Gary W.; Pritt, Bobbi. Pathology of Infectious Diseases: A Volume in the Series: Foundations in Diagnostic Pathology. Elsevier Health Sciences. ISBN 9781455753840. Retrieved 7 December 2016. 
  13. ^ Toutous-Trellu, Laurence (2003). "African tick bite fever: Not a spotless rickettsiosis!". Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 48: S18–S19. doi:10.1067/mjd.2003.122. 
  14. ^ Brouqui, P.; Harle, J. R.; Delmont, J.; Frances, C.; Weiller, P. J.; Raoult, D. (1997-01-13). "African tick-bite fever. An imported spotless rickettsiosis". Archives of Internal Medicine. 157 (1): 119–124. ISSN 0003-9926. PMID 8996049. doi:10.1001/archinte.157.1.119. 
  15. ^ a b c Humar, A.; Keystone, J. (1996-04-13). "Evaluating fever in travellers returning from tropical countries". BMJ (Clinical research ed.). 312 (7036): 953–956. ISSN 0959-8138. PMC 2350757Freely accessible. PMID 8616312. doi:10.1136/bmj.312.7036.953. 
  16. ^ "Antibiotic Use During Pregnancy and Lactation". American Family Physician. Retrieved 2016-12-02. 
  17. ^ a b "African Tick-Bite Fever | Disease Directory | Travelers' Health | CDC". Retrieved 2016-12-10. 
  18. ^ a b Frean, J.; Blumberg, L. (2007-11-01). "Tick bite fever and Q fever - a South African perspective". South African Medical Journal = Suid-Afrikaanse Tydskrif Vir Geneeskunde. 97 (11 Pt 3): 1198–1202. ISSN 0256-9574. PMID 18250937. 

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