Toxoplasmosis and pregnancy
Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii.
New research is looking at other ways of diagnosing toxoplasmosis – for example, by identifying the DNA of the T. gondii parasite in samples of cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord).It’s hoped that this may be a quicker and more reliable method of diagnosis, and will help confirm whether the damage to the brain has been caused by toxoplasmosis rather than by another condition.
What is toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, a microscopic single-cell organism that can be found in meat, cat faeces, the soil where cats defecate and unpasteurised goats’ milk. The parasite can infect most birds and warm-blooded animals, including humans. Cats are the only animals that can have infected faeces. The organism completes its sexual cycle in the gut of members of the cat family. Following infection through eating birds, mice or other raw meat, a cat can shed infectious faeces for about 14 days. A healthy cat will not normally be a source of infection again, but sick cats may re-shed infected faeces.
How is toxoplasmosis caught?
Toxoplasmosis is caught by eating anything infected with, or contaminated by, the parasite. This could be:
- raw or undercooked meat (meat showing any traces of pink or blood), and raw cured meat such as Parma ham or salami
- unwashed vegetables and fruit
- cat faeces or soil contaminated with cat faeces
- unpasteurised goats’ milk and dairy products made from it.
Humans may become infected in any of the following ways:
- Eating the organism in soil or water that has been contaminated with cat faeces.
- Eating the organism in raw or undercooked meat from infected animals (particularly sheep and pigs, but also cows and deer).
- Drinking unpasteurised milk from infected goats.
- Transmission of the organism across the placenta after maternal infection (mother to unborn baby).
- Transmission of the organism from infected matter entering human body fluids; if, for example, during the process of lambing, material splashes into eyes or open cuts.
- Transmission of the organism from transplanted organs or blood products from other humans with acute or latent toxoplasmosis or inhalation of sporulated oocysts (possible but very unusual).
Toxoplasmosis can not be caught by stroking a cat or having a cat as a pet. The infection comes from coming into contact with the infected faeces of a cat. Person-to-person infection is not possible, except from mother to unborn child. Infection is followed by the replication of the parasite in the blood and the invasion of organs and tissue. The incubation period is 5–23 days.
How will I know if I have toxoplasmosis?
If you have toxoplasmosis, you may not have symptoms at all. If you do have symptoms, these can appear two or three weeks after you’ve been infected, so it’s difficult to pinpoint the cause. Symptoms of toxoplasmosis can include:
- swollen lymph nodes in your neck
- muscular aches
- general flu-like symptoms
Will toxoplasmosis harm my unborn baby?
Rest assured that infection during pregnancy with toxoplasmosis is rare. However, on the few occasions it does happen, toxoplasmosis can cause serious problems for an unborn baby. If you pick it up during early pregnancy, it can lead to miscarriage. If you get toxoplasmosis during your first or second trimester, your unborn baby can develop:
- water on the brain (hydrocephalus) or brain damage
- damage to the eyes or other organs