Toxoplasmosis is an infection due to the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, and can be found in most warm blooded animals including humans, however the most common host is the cat. The infection can sometimes be passed from mother to baby if she has become infected during pregnancy or during actual labor. The organism was first discovered in 1908 after the parasites were observed in the blood, liver, and spleen of a North African rodent, Ctenodactylus gondii.
The Scope of the Problem
It is estimated that up to a third of the world’s human population is carrying a toxoplasma infection, and in the US alone approximately 60 million men, women, and children carry the Toxoplasma parasite, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Fortunately very few have any symptoms because the immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness. People do die from T. gondii each year according to the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute (EPI).
In a recent report, there were an estimated 86,686 illnesses a year, resulting in 4,428 hospitalizations and 327 deaths. Salmonella results in slightly more deaths, about 378, and while everyone has heard about Salmonella and most people can tell you how to get it, but few people know anything about Toxoplasmosis and if they’ve heard of it, even fewer people know how you can contract it or what the symptoms are.
The Toxoplasma parasite has been responsible for an average of 16 stillbirths a year. The estimated economic impact from the disease has been estimated as high as nearly 8 billion dollars annually. That’s a lot from a disease that few people have heard of. For most adults with normal immune systems, the symptoms of an infection from Toxoplasma gondii are relatively mild. Most T. gondii infections occur in one of the following ways; by eating raw or undercooked meat containing T. gondii cysts, by ingesting oocytes from the soil through handling or eating unwashed vegetables, or changing cat litter, or acquiring the congenital infection through the placenta.
Recent epidemiologic studies have identified the following risk factors for T. gondii; living near cats in farming communities, eating undercooked pork, lamb, beef, or mincemeat products. Other risk factors are as follows; washing kitchen knives infrequently, handling and/or eating unwashed vegetables, poor hand washing habits, or traveling outside of Europe, the U.S., and Canada. A little surprisingly, owning a cat was not considered a risk factor. A high prevalence of T. gondii has also been found in countries like France where people often eat undercooked meat.
Most adults do not require treatment for Toxoplasmosis unless an otherwise healthy adult is experiencing acute symptoms. In that case, doctors might prescribe medications like Pyrimethamine (Daraprim), also used to treat Malaria. Your doctor might also prescribe an antibiotic used with Pyrimethamine, called Sulfadiazine.
Some people need to keep taking these drugs for life. If you’re pregnant and your baby has not been infected you’ll probably be given the antibiotic Spiramycin which should reduce the likelihood that your baby will become infected. Spiramycin is used routinely in Europe, but in the US it is still considered experimental. Your doctor can still get it from the FDA though. If your unborn child has contracted the disease you may receive Pyrimethamine and Sulfadiazine, but only in serious cases. Both drugs can have serious side effects for both mother and child. The treatment can lessen the severity of the disease but it cannot undo any damage that has already occurred.