Scientists have recently determined in a study which strains of the parasite Toxoplasma gondii are most likely to cause premature births and severe birth defects in the US. The strains are categorized as Type II or Not Exclusively Type II (NE-II). According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NE-II is more common in the US and is the strain that most often causes the most severe disease and premature births. Scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) developed the new test which distinguishes between the strains. Previous blood tests only tested for any toxoplasmosis exposure and did not distinguish between the strains.
Transmission and Treatment Although rarely tested for in pregnant women in the US, the Toxoplasma gondii parasite can be found in cat feces or undercooked meat–particularly pork, lamb and venison . Most people who become infected with this Toxoplasma parasite do not usually know they have it, as at most, they may experience flu-like symptoms. However, pregnant women are at risk for miscarriage or premature birth and the newborn may suffer severe eye or brain damage. Treatment for pregnant women or people with severely weakened immune systems is medication. All others infected with this parasite should get well on their own as their immune system fights the parasite.
Prevention of Toxoplasmosis
To prevent toxoplasmosis, cat owners need to be careful when handling used cat litter and should wash their hands thoroughly after cleaning a cat’s litter box. Soil can be contaminated with cat feces; therefore, hands should be washed after gardening or otherwise handling soil. Fruits or vegetables found in soil should also be thoroughly washed before eating. Additionally, to avoid consuming the parasite from undercooked meat, meat should be thoroughly cooked (145 degrees F for whole cuts of meat and 160 degrees F for ground meat). However, even better than heating is to freeze the meat at subzero temperatures (0 F) for several days before cooking.
According to NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, MD, the findings from this study show the value of screening pregnant women for this parasite in order to determine who needs treatment. Rima McLeod, MD, first author of the study states: “In the United States, obstetrical screening for Toxoplasma infection is rarely practiced. This new study underscores the value of identifying all patients who will benefit from treatment and suggests that widespread screening and treatment of pregnant women who are infected could prevent infants from suffering eye and brain damage due to congenital toxoplasmosis.”
Sources: National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Centers for Disease Control (CDC)