Toxoplasmosis

Pregnancy is a time of great joy for most mom's-to-be: after all, you are expecting a fabulous new addition to your family very soon. However, pregnancy can also be a time for worries and concerns, particularly when it comes to maintaining good prenatal health. Now that you are pregnant, you may have heard about an infection called Toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis can be a serious health concern if you contract it during pregnancy. This illness can be passed to your baby while he is in utero, causing serious health complications. However, by finding out more about toxoplasmosis you can help to reduce your risk of infection.

What is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is an infection that is caused by a parasite called toxoplasma gondii. Transmitted to humans by infected animals, this infection is generally not a cause for concern. In fact, more than 60 million Americans are currently infected with toxoplasmosis and experience no symptoms or health complications. However, toxoplasmosis can become very problematic for people who are suffering from a weakened immune system (including the chronically ill) and for pregnant women.

Women who become infected during pregnancy can pass along the toxoplasmosis infection to their child, resulting in permanent disability. While the infection is fairly rare, affecting about two out of every 1000 pregnant women, it is still important for women to know to look for the signs and symptoms of toxoplasmosis.

How Do You Get Toxoplasmosis?
You can contract toxoplasmosis if you come into contact with an animal that has been infected by the toxoplasma gondii parasite. Because wild birds and rodents carry the parasite inside of their bodies, cats, sheep, and other wildlife often end up contracting the disease themselves. This parasite can then be passed on to you if you come into contact with an infected animal or infected animal products.

The main methods of contracting toxoplasmosis include:

  • coming into contact with infected cat feces, either while gardening or while cleaning your cat's litter box.
  • eating infected meat, particularly pork, venison, or lamb, that is raw or undercooked.
  • coming into contact with infected cooking or eating utensils.
  • coming into direct contact with an infected sheep
  • receiving a tainted blood transfusion or organ transplant

What are the Symptoms of Toxoplasmosis?
The symptoms of toxoplasmosis are typically very difficult to recognize. Unfortunately, this means that many of the people who are most at risk from toxoplasmosis never get treated. Additionally, once you become infected with toxoplasmosis, the infection can lie dormant in your system for many years. Symptoms are usually mild and may include:

  • swollen glands
  • aching muscles
  • fever or chills

Toxoplasmosis and Pregnancy
Toxoplasmosis is particularly worrisome for women who are expecting. If you become infected, toxoplasmosis can increase your risk of miscarriage and stillbirth. Once you are infected, there is a 40% chance that you will pass the toxoplasma gondii parasite on to your child. If this happens, your child could develop some very serious health issues. 10% of children infected with toxomplasmosis will show symptoms at birth, including:

  • eye infections
  • skin rash and jaundice
  • pneumonia
  • nervous system damage (including seizures and developmental delay)

90% of infected infants do not show symptoms of toxoplasmosis at birth. Instead, symptoms may take a few months or more to manifest. Symptoms often include eye infections causing blindness, deafness, and learning disabilities.

What is the Treatment for Toxoplasmosis?
Most people who become infected with toxoplasmosis do not require treatment the immune system will naturally fight the parasite. But if you are pregnant, it is essential that you receive medical treatment as soon as possible. Your health care provider can run a series of simple blood tests to determine if you are infected with the parasite. She will also perform ultrasound scans to find out if your baby has been infected.

If you and your baby are both infected with the parasite, your health care provider will likely prescribe the medications pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine. These medications will help to prevent your baby from suffering serious side effects. If your baby is not infected, you will likely be given the antibiotic spyramicin. This drug can help to decrease your baby's chances of infection by up to 50%.

Preventing Pregnancy Toxoplasmosis
Throughout your pregnancy, it is a good idea to take preventative measures to ensure that you do not become infected with toxoplasmosis. Here are some tips to help keep you and your baby free from the illness:

  • Keep your cat indoors. Indoor cats will not catch toxoplasmosis and therefore will not transmit the disease to you.
  • Avoid cleaning your cat's litter box while you are pregnant. If you must do the cleaning yourself, be sure to wear gloves every time.
  • Avoid coming into contact with stray cats or kittens.
  • Wear protective gloves when gardening outside.
  • Avoid contact with sheep and other farm animals.
  • Cook all of your meats until they are well done. Meats should reach an internal temperature of 160F and should not appear pink on the inside.
  • Wash all utensils, cutting boards, and food preparation surfaces thoroughly with soap and hot water.

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