The myths and facts about toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is caused by a microscopic parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. Cats and other feline species are the definitive hosts, ie. the parasite develops in the cat. However, the infection can develop in several animal species including man.

Toxoplasmosis is an illness that is arousing a growing amount of interest in society. Many  clients who come to our hospital are worried about the possible transmission of this disease.

Toxoplasmosis is defined as a zoonosis, this means it is a disease shared by animals and  humans and can be transmitted from animals to humans. With this article I will try to break some of the myths created about this disease and provide prevention measures  and hygiene tips to minimize the possibility of transmitting the disease to humans.

Toxoplasmosis is caused by a microscopic parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. Cats and   other feline species are the definitive hosts, ie. the parasite develops in the cat. However, the infection can develop in several animal species including man.

In humans, most infections are asymptomatic, causing no disease. Maybe one in 10  people will demonstrate mild flu-like symptoms. These can go totally unnoticed if no  specific clinical examinations are performed. People when infected, develop immunity,  therefore re-infection does not occur. Animals are infected by eating infected meat, by ingestion of faeces of a cat that has itself recently been infected or by transmission from  mother to fetus. Although cats are often blamed for spreading toxoplasmosis, contact with  raw meat is a more significant source of human infections in many countries and  fecal contamination of hands is a greater risk factor. According to some studies, around  half the world’s population has been infected with toxoplasma at some point in their lives.

Cats excrete the pathogen in their faeces for a number of weeks after contracting the  disease, generally by eating an infected rodent. Even then, cat faeces are not generally  contagious for the first day or two after excretion, after which the cyst ‘ripens’ and  becomes potentially pathogenic.

Studies have shown that only about 2% of cats are shedding oocysts at any one time and  that oocyst shedding does not recur even after repeated exposure to the parasite. The  greatest risks are to people with a weakened immune system, such as AIDS patients or  pregnant women.

In pregnant women the parasite can cross the placenta and infect the fetus, causing abortions or congenital malformations that may develop even several years after birth. If the woman is infected before six months of pregnancy there are no risks to the mother or the fetus due to the development of antibodies. A simple blood test can determine whether the mother has been exposed to the parasite and whether the infection has  occurred recently. In the latter case, your doctor will provide a drug that will greatly reduce the risk of infection to the fetus. If you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant, check with your doctor. In AIDS patients or people receiving treatment with certain drugs such as steroids or chemotherapy the infection can progress to a severe form of the  disease.

Recommendations and appropriate measures to prevent toxoplasma infection: These recommendations are valid for the general population, for pregnant women or immune  compromised patients in particular. Wear gloves when handling raw meats. Wash hands  and instruments with soap and water after handling meat products. The freezing process  of 3-5 days or cooking meats and vegetables over the 66 ° C completely destroyed the  parasites.

  • Wash fresh produce before consumption.
  • Boil water if canalisation system is non existent.
  • Use gloves when gardening or working with soil. In the soil the parasites can remain infectious for many months.
  • Do not feed cats raw meat.
  • It is advisable to rinse out the cat litter box, especially if they are roaming free. If you are pregnant or immune compromised, delegate the job to another person.

In conclusion, it is important to note that from the epidemic or statistical point of view the vast majority of human infections are not associated to cats. Therefore living with your pets does not significantly increase the risk of infection. Especially not when your pet is housekept and fed only on commercial feed or thoroughly cooked homemade food. Without doubt, the greatest risk of infection in developed countries is the handling of raw  meat, ingestion of poorly cooked meats and vegetables and the lack of appropriate  hygiene measures when handling soil or doing yard work.

This article was published in Costa Blanca News.

Autor: Juan Griñan

Juan Manuel Griñán es veterinario del Centro Veterinario JG desde 1988 y está especialmente formado en neurología, resonancia magnética, endoscopia, anestesia y cirugía, traumatología, y en medicina y cirugía de exóticos, en especial aves. contactar con Juan

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