Toxoplasmosis: know this about your kitty

Your family cat may pose a danger to you and your child. Here is everything you need to know about toxoplasmosis.

What are the causes of toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a single-cell parasite, toxoplasma gondii, which can only reproduce in the cells lining the intestines of cats. While most pets can carry this disease, only cats shed the eggs or oocysts that cause this infection. Cats get this infection from eating rodents or insects, or by being in contact with other infected cats or their faeces.

Who is at risk?
Toxoplasmosis is transmitted to humans when they do not wash their hands after coming into contact with cat faeces, while gardening or cleaning out cat litter trays, or when children play in sandboxes. It can also be spread by eating unwashed fruit and vegetables, grown in soil contaminated by cat faeces. Eating raw or undercooked meat also exposes people to the dormant form of the parasite.

It is most dangerous to a pregnant woman, who can transfer this infection to her fetus through the placenta. This could cause a miscarriage, or may cause the baby to be stillborn or born with congenital toxoplasmosis. This could be fatal for a baby. If the child survives, it can suffer from blindness, jaundice, convulsions and severe mental retardation.

Signs and symptoms
If a person has acquired toxoplasmosis after birth, there are very seldom any symptoms. In babies, mild symptoms could appear shortly after birth, but most often only years later. Symptoms vary tremendously, depending on which type of toxoplasmosis a person has been infected with. Possible symptoms include fever, a general feeling of malaise and swollen lymph nodes. If a person’s immune system has been compromised in some way, such as is the case when someone has Aids, toxoplasmosis can lead to potentially life-threatening brain infections.

The presence of antibodies against the parasite can be determined by a blood test. This is the method used most frequently to determine whether someone has been infected with toxoplasmosis. In the case of immune-compromised patients, a doctor may decide on a CT- or MRI brain scan to make the diagnosis.

Generally the prognosis for people who acquired toxoplasmosis after birth is good. Most people who have a well-functioning immune system need no treatment at all and the disease disappears by itself. For pregnant women or persons who have weakened immune systems, drugs are available to treat toxoplasmosis.

Pregnant women should not handle cat litter. Other people should only clean litter boxes while wearing plastic gloves, and hands should be washed afterwards using hot water and disinfectant soap. Children’s sandboxes should be covered. Vegetables should be washed properly and hands washed after handling raw meat. Meat should be cooked properly. Gloves should be worn while gardening and hands should be properly washed afterwards.

(Liesel Powell, Health24, November 2010)

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