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Have you ever heard that pregnant women should stay away from the cat litter tray, especially during the first trimester?

That is because of toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii that can be found in soil and litter contaminated my cat feces. What should every woman with a baby on the way know about toxoplasmosis? 

What is toxoplasmosis?

Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a parasite. Cats and cat feces are the most well-known source of toxplasmosis trandmission, but the parasite can also be spread through raw or partly cooked meat, lamb and pork meat in particular. Dirty hands in other words, hands that aren't washed after contact with a source of toxoplasmosis are the major culprit of infection. People who have been infected with toxplasmosis may have some flu-like symptoms in the first week, but will generally not even realize that toxoplasmosis is the cause. According to some, a third or more of the world population has been infected with toxoplasmosis! It isn't generally dangerous, but people with a weak immune system, like people with HIV, pregnant women, and fetuses, are the exception. The parasite toxoplasma gondii can cause encephalitis, neurologic diseases, and can affect most internal organs including the heart and liver. In rare cases, toxoplasmosis can be deadly.

Toxplasmosis during pregnancy

Toxoplasmosis crosses the placenta, and can cause cogential toxoplasmosis in a fetus. This can lead to learning disabilities, hearing difficulties, and sight issues later in life. Research shows that half of all babies who were exposed to toxoplasmosis are born prematurely, which has its own set of possible complications. Although most newborn babies who have mild toxoplasmosis infections do not show any symptoms immediately, they usually do go on to develop complications most commonly eyesight problems. Some of the symptoms of congenital toxoplasmosis are jaundice, an enlarged liver and spleen, vomiting and diarrhea, eye inflammation and vision problems, a low birth weight, and feeding problems. Gongenital toxoplasmosis can be diagnosed both prenatally and after birth, but it's important to keep in mind that these tests are not routine. Questions about why not are certainly coming from some corners, but prevention of toxoplasmosis is the main weapon pregn ant women have. If you are trying to conceive, you may consider having a titer test for toxoplasmosis antibodies. If you do, you have already had the infection and developed antibodies. In this case, your baby would be at a much lower risk if you came into contact with toxoplasma gondii again during pregnancy. So, what can you do to prevent toxoplasmosis during your pregnancy? Quite a few things, actually, and they go beyond cat litter:

  • Stay away from that infamous cat litter tray or use gloves. Use gloves if you garden, or avoid gardening especially in your first trimester of pregnancy.
  • It is not safe to eat raw meat during pregnancy. Make sure that any meat you consume is well-cooked, with no parts left undone. Some people use a thermometer for food to make sure. Avoid eating in dodgy restaurants, and especially avoid eating food from street sellers.
  • Regularly wash your hands, especially after you come into contact with any kind of food or soil.
  • Wash any cooking utensils like plates, cutlery, pots and pans, and cutting boards very well when they have been in contact with raw foods, or better yet run them through a dishwasher. Also wash fruits and veg thoroughly before consumption, as they may have been in contact with infected soil.

Toxoplasmosis during pregnancy and... suicide?

Finally, one interesting "tidbit of information" that you may want to know about. Danish researchers published a paper in the Archives of General Psychiatry that indicates mothers infected with toxoplasmosis during pregnancy are more likely than others to self-mutilate and commit suicide. The researchers came from different Danish universities and examined 4600 pregnant women. Their titers were taken to find out whether they had been infected with toxoplasmosis and to which extent, and tracked which women were prone to self mutilation and suicide attempts. The women who had toxoplasmosis were 1.5 times more likely to either self harm or feel suicidal, and their risk of these negative emotions and acts went up steadily with the amount of antibodies. Wow. Just one more reason to avoid contact with the parasite to causes toxoplasmosis as best as possible.

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