toxoplasmosis and pregnancy

Toxoplasmosis and pregnancy

What is toxoplasmosis?

Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a tiny parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. It’s usually a mild disease, which often has no symptoms at all, but if you catch it for the first time in early pregnancy it can cause serious health problems for your baby. You can be infected with toxoplasmosis from eating meat that is either raw, cured, or undercooked.

The toxoplasmosis parasite is also found in:

  • unpasteurised goat’s milk or cheese
  • unwashed fruit or vegetables
  • cat poo (most animals can be infected with toxoplasmosis but cats are the only ones to pass it on through their poo)

You can only catch toxoplasmosis once, after that you’re immune to it. So if you’ve had it in the past there’s no risk to your pregnancy. The problem is, the symptoms are so mild you probably won’t know if you’ve had it or not. So it’s wise for everyone to take steps to avoid being infected. Fortunately there’s lots you can do.

Will toxoplasmosis harm my unborn baby?

It can do. The toxoplasmosis parasite can infect your placenta and your baby and cause a condition called congenital toxoplasmosis, but it’s very rare for this to happen. Of all babies born, between one in 10,000 and one in 30,000 are born with congenital toxoplasmosis.

The risk to your baby depends on when you were infected with toxoplasmosis. It’s more likely to spread to your baby in later pregnancy, although if you catch it in early pregnancy the effects on your baby are likely to be more severe. Sadly, congenital toxoplasmosis in early pregnancy can lead to misscarriage.

Most babies with congenital toxoplasmosis have no obvious problems at birth. However these babies may develop symptoms during the next few months or years. These may include:

  • damage to the eyes
  • hearing problems
  • learning difficulties as a result of brain damage

About one in 10 babies with congenital toxoplasmosis will have a severe infection with problems that affect them as soon as they are born. Signs of a serious infection include:

  • an eye infection
  • an enlarged liver and spleen
  • jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
  • pneumonia

Sadly, congenital toxoplasmosis can also cause a baby to be stillborn.

How can I prevent toxoplasmosis?

There are simple steps you can take to protect yourself from catching toxoplasmosis.

When it comes to food:

  • Thoroughly cook all meat and chilled or frozen ready meals before you eat them.
  • Avoid eating cured meat, such as jamón, parma ham and salami.
  • Follow good hygiene when handling or preparing meat. Keep kitchen utensils that you’ve used on raw meat away from food that you’re going to eat without cooking and wash the utensils thoroughly before you use them again.
  • Wash your hands before touching your food. After you’ve finished cooking, wash your hands and all cooking utensils and surfaces thoroughly.
  • Wash fruit and vegetables, particularly if you are eating them raw.
  • Don’t drink unpasteurised milk, cheese, or cream made from unpasteurised goat’s milk.

When you’re gardening or handling soil or sand, wear gloves. Then wash your hands afterwards in case you have come into contact with cat poo in the soil. If your child has an outdoor sand box, cover it up to prevent cats using it as a litter tray.

Some farm animals can also carry toxoplasmosis. If you’ve been in contact with sheep at farmsor been visiting outdoor play centres where there are animals, wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.

If you have a cat, it’s best if someone else can deal with the litter tray while you’re pregnant. If you have to clear the litter tray yourself use gloves and wash your hands afterwards. Also, make sure the litter tray is emptied daily and cleaned with hot, soapy water, as the toxoplasmosis parasite in cat poo becomes infectious after 24 hours.

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