While most people and animals that have contracted toxoplasmosis are likely not to suffer any serious symptoms, some animals and people with compromised immune systems can become quite ill. For this reason, many doctors warn pregnant women about the risks of owning a cat to ensure babies do not become ill with the disease. We’ll spend a bit of time talking about the treatment of toxoplasmosis but first, prevention.
The best way to treat toxoplasmosis is to be careful not to get infected. You can reduce your risk of getting toxoplasmosis from contaminated foods by taking extra care when preparing and eating foods. First of all, always cook foods to the recommended safe temperatures and use a food thermometer to check. Beef, lamb, and veal should be cooked to a minimum of 145°F; pork, ground meat, and wild game should be cooked to 160°F; and poultry should be cooked to 180°F. You can even freeze meats for a few days before cooking to further reduce the possibility of toxoplasmosis. With fruits and vegetables, always wash them and peel them before eating. Finally, ensure that you thoroughly wash cutting boards, dishes, counters, utensils, and your hands after handling raw foods.
Next you’ll want to avoid toxoplasmosis in the environment. You must carefully handle your cat’s litter box and even wear gloves; and never clean a litter box if you are pregnant or your immune system is compromised. In fact, it is recommended you wear gloves when gardening as well because cats often defecate in flower beds. Cover outdoor sandboxes so cats cannot defecate where children play.
Let me mention one more time that most people can fight toxoplasmosis without treatment. Still, if your doctor decides treatment is necessary, he or she will prescribe medication that controls the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis. For some individuals, you may need to continue drug therapy while you are immune-compromised.
The next in my series of articles about toxoplasmosis concerns the risk factors and transmission of the disease. Some estimates have around 22.5% of all individuals over 12 years of age infected with toxoplasmosis in the United States. The disease is especially common in areas with hot, humid climates and at lower altitudes. In fact, some countries have an incidence of toxoplasmosis around 95%. Clearly, this is a very common parasite and a very common disease.
There are two main methods of transmission of toxoplasmosis. The disease cannot be passed from person-to-person except congenitally where a pregnant mother passes the disease to her infant. In addition, blood transfusion and organ transplantation are methods by which the disease is transmitted, but are obviously quite rare. Instead, most cases of toxoplasmosis are contracted through food-borne transmission, animal-to-human transmission, and as already mentioned, congenital transmission.
Food-borne transmission occurs when the tissues from the parasite has infected some food source. Eating undercooked meat, accidentally or otherwise; especially lamb, pork, and venison can lead to the transmission of toxoplasmosis. Similarly, you may accidentally ingest the parasite if you do not properly wash your hands after handling raw meats. Finally, knives, forks, cutting boards, or other raw foods that come in contact with contaminated foods likewise become contaminated and may increase your risk of contracting the disease.
The most common form of animal-to-human transmission involves cats. Because cats, especially outdoor cats, often eat infected rats, birds, and other small animals, cats often carry the toxoplasmosis parasite. The parasite can then be shed in feces for as long as 3 weeks after infection. Therefore, your cats litter box can become contaminated with toxoplasmosis and it is easier for other times around the house to also become contaminated. You may accidentally ingest the parasite while cleaning a litter box or by touching things that have contacted your cats feces. As such, it is always especially important to take care when cleaning your cat’s litter box.
Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. Most often associated with cats, pregnant women and new parents who also have a cat have no doubt heard about this disease. In fact, toxoplasmosis can infect nearly all warm-blooded animals and some estimates have one-third of the world’s human population carrying the parasite. While the cat is the primary host of Toxoplasma gondii health professionals warn that it most likely through contact with undercooked meat, specifically pork, lamb, or venison.
Surprisingly, toxoplasmosis is more common than you would think. Fortunately, most healthy humans are able to fight the infection and usually show no symptoms of disease. People with compromised immune systems, for example people with HIV/AIDS, those undergoing chemotherapy, and recent organ-transplant recipients, are especially at risk of developing more severe symptoms. Usually, few people are unaware that they have toxoplasmosis as their immune system prevents the parasite from causing illness. But in immune-compromised individuals, flu like symptoms including swollen lymph nodes, muscle pain, and fever may be experienced. In more severe cases of toxoplasmosis, people may suffer damage to the eye, brain, or other organs.
Recent research about toxoplasmosis suggests that the disease can cause behavioral changes in infected rats, mice, and possibly even humans. After becoming infected, researchers have noticed that rats and mice actually become attracted to the scent of cats, an advantageous change for the parasite. Toxoplasma gondii only reproduces when a cat is host, and this change in behavior makes it much more likely that the rat will be eaten by a cat so the cat can serve as host. Interestingly, behavioral changes in hosts have also been noticed in humans. Slower reaction times, an increased risk of schizophrenia, and an increased risk of traffic accidents are just two of the reported behavioral changes. Women may be more outgoing and show signs of increased intelligence; while men show increased aggression and jealousy.