The parasite Toxoplasma gondii doesn’t register with most people like other dangerous parasites do. Unfortunately, if this parasite finds its way into a person’s system, it can cause some long-term health problems. Some measures can help you avoid developing the resultant disease, called toxoplasmosis. First, though, it is worth taking a moment to understand how this disease works.
How People Contract Toxoplasmosis
This parasite requires specific conditions to get into a human host. Specifically, it travels via contaminated food or contact with the feces of an infected human or animal. The most common routes of transmission are:
- Coming into contact with cat feces, whether from cleaning a litter box or ingesting food or drink contaminated by cat feces
- Swallowing or working with undercooked meat or using other dishes and utensils used to prepare undercooked meat
- Eating products made from unpasteurized goat’s milk
- Unknowingly handling soil that a cat has defecated in
- Food contaminated fruits or vegetables
The good news is that most immune systems can treat toxoplasmosis just fine. In fact, almost 30% of the world’s population carries the disease without experiencing much discomfort at all. Tropical climates seem particularly vulnerable, as evidenced by El Salvador’s 75% infection rate. However, people with compromised immune systems need to take extra caution to avoid the full-blown effects of toxoplasmosis. This includes young children, pregnant women, HIV Positive patients, or individuals with other diseases that weaken their immune response.
Special Risk for Pregnant Women
The risk to pregnant women should not be understated. Women who contract the parasite in the early stages of their pregnancies, from the second to the sixth month, could pass it on to their newborns. This can cause serious, long-term problems for a child, including damage to the brain and the nervous system.
Symptoms and Development
The symptoms of toxoplasmosis can trick even experienced doctors. Its symptoms sometimes resemble those of nervous system lymphoma. A specific blood test that looks for Toxoplasma gondii can determine if the parasite is present and whether it remains latent or has become active. Once symptoms become apparent, the disease has usually been developing for some time. Symptoms include, but are not limited to:
- Muscle aches
- Epilepsy, jaundice or cerebral palsy in newborns
- Sore throat
- Vision problems, including blurred vision and sensitivity to light
- Poor coordination when using a specific part of the body
These symptoms vary according to a person’s age, health, and many other factors. Also, the symptoms vary so much that a comprehensive list is not available here. Therefore, people concerned about this disease should seek the assistance of a qualified physician rather than make a self-diagnosis.
Cat owners need to make sure they remain vigilant about how they handle and dispose of anything related to their cat’s feces. Studies have shown domestic cats to have anywhere from 48% infection rates to nearly 98% in different countries. Generally speaking, though, the non-cat owning public can steer clear of this potentially nasty parasite by practicing standard hygiene precautions, such as:
- Wearing gloves when dealing with cat waste or when gardening
- Thoroughly washing anything in the kitchen that has come into contact with raw meat
- Washing all fruits and vegetables before preparing them
- Ensuring that all meat products have been cooked well
Toxoplasmosis is a scary parasite to contemplate since its symptoms go largely unnoticed in humans and other animals for extended periods of time. With proper hygiene and particular attention from cat owners, most people will never even realize it if they encounter this disease. However, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems would do well to err on the side of caution.