The parasitic organism, Toxoplasma gondii, causes an infection called toxoplasmosis (toxo). Researchers estimate that over 60 million Americans are carriers of the parasite. Most people do not experience symptoms, but a few have flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and fever. People with healthy immune systems, exposed to the parasite, usually develop immunity to illnesses associated with it. However, Toxoplasma infection in pregnant women can cause severe, even catastrophic, problems for a developing baby.
Activities that Increase Risk of Toxo Infection
Touching the mouth, or mucus membranes of the nose and eyes, after gardening or tending to a cat’s litter box increase the risk of exposure and toxo infection. Eating raw or undercooked meats, or touching your mouth after handling raw meats also raises the risk of infection. Wild game meats as well as pork and lamb pose the greatest risk for transmission of this disease. Contaminated food of any type, such as unwashed fruits and vegetables, can transmit the parasite as can contaminated drinking water.
Pregnancy and Toxoplasmosis Infection
If an initial toxo infection occurs just before conception or during pregnancy, there is a 30 to 40 percent chance that the mother will transmit the infection to her developing baby. According to the March of Dimes, 85 percent of women of childbearing age in the U.S. have never had a toxoplasmosis infection. This puts these women at risk of toxo infection right before or during pregnancy with potentially catastrophic outcomes.
Consequences for Babies Exposed in the Womb
The earlier in pregnancy that the mother becomes infected, the more disastrous the potential consequences for the baby. Many babies infected in the first trimester do not survive; these pregnancies often end in miscarriage or stillbirth. However, most babies born with the disease do not show outward signs of the infection at birth, but those that do may have seizures, jaundice, enlarged liver, and severe, recurring infections of the eyes. Those with no outward signs develop manifestations of the parasitic infection during adolescence or later. These severe symptoms of toxo include hearing loss, eye infections that can result in blindness, and mental retardation.
Prevention of Infection
Simple precautions pregnant women can take that prevent toxoplasma infection:
- Do not handle dirty cat litter or touch cat feces for the duration of your pregnancy. Enlist another family member to change the litter box.
- Keep cats indoors so they do not hunt and eat infected animals.
- Wear gloves when gardening and avoid touching hands to your face area before a thorough washing with soap and warm water.
- Cook all meats thoroughly, using a meat thermometer (internal temperature of 160 F) to ensure safety.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before cooking or preparing raw.
- Clean all utensils used on raw meats or unwashed foods thoroughly.
- Wash hands frequently.
Diagnosis of Toxoplasmosis
An OB/GYN physician can order a blood test to determine whether a woman is currently infected or had a toxo infection earlier in her life. The test is not a routine test ordered during well-woman visits, so concerned women should ask their OB/GYN doctors about it prior to becoming pregnant.
Healthcare providers can test the amniotic fluid or fetal blood to determine whether the mother transmitted the infection to baby. Some babies, approximately 30 percent, with toxo infections have an issue that an ultrasound can detect. Alternatively, the OB/GYN can order a test of the baby’s blood after birth.
Physicians prescribe antibiotics to pregnant women already infected with toxo and the earlier treatment begins, the lower the risk that the parasite will cross the placenta and infect the developing fetus. For babies already infected, treatment with antibiotics may mitigate the severity of the disease’s effects. Infected babies must usually continue taking prescription drugs to treat the infection for the first 12 months after birth.