Toxoplasmosis is a condition caused by the parasite Toxoplasmosa gondii. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the parasite is carried by more than 60 million people in the United States alone. Few, however, develop toxoplasmosis because the parasite is easily controlled by a healthy immune system. Individuals at particular risk for toxoplasmosis are those with weakened immune systems and pregnant women.
Causes of Toxoplasmosis
Toxoplasmosis is caused by a common parasite which infects many mammals, but particularly cats. When an animal is infected by the Toxoplasmosa gondii parasite, the parasite can be transferred to humans in several ways. First, a human may come into contact with the feces of the infected animal. This is a common risk for cat owners who tend their pet’s litter box regularly.
Humans may also ingest the parasite by consuming unwashed fruits or vegetables which were grown in contaminated soil. Additionally, humans may contract the parasite through handling or consuming raw or undercooked meat from an infected animal.
Special Risks for Pregnant Women
According to the National Institute for Health, symptoms of toxoplasmosis in adults include swollen lymph nodes, fever, sore throat, and fatigue. Most adults with healthy immune systems report no noticeable symptoms. However, toxoplasmosis can pose a serious risk to a fetus.
Once infected, most individuals develop an immunity to the disease. It is generally considered safe for a woman to become pregnant if the toxoplasmosis infection occurred more than six months prior to pregnancy.
An active toxoplasmosis infection contracted during pregnancy can have a serious impact on the health of the child. Only 1 in 10 infected infants will have obvious symptoms from the infection at birth, such as eye infections or an enlarged liver.
Most infected infants develop complications from the infection later on. These complications include blindness, deafness, and mental retardation. These risks make it paramount that a pregnant woman takes the necessary precautions to reduce her risk of infection.
Minimizing the Risk of Toxoplasmosis
Minimizing the risk of toxoplasmosis does not mean that you must give up your pet cat. However, in order to reduce the likelihood of contracting the parasite, pregnant women should have minimal contact with their cat’s litter box.
The CDC recommends that another person should tend to the litter box, making sure that it is cleaned daily to reduce the chance of infection. If this is not possible, then the pregnant woman should wear disposable gloves while cleaning the litter box and wash her hands thoroughly with antibacterial soap immediately afterward.
Pregnant women should also avoid eating raw, unwashed fruits or vegetables, as they may harbor the parasite. They should avoid handling raw meat and consume only fully-cooked meat which has reached an internal temperature of 160°F.