Toxoplasma gondii is a protozoan that causes toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis is an opportunistic disease, which means that it is activated when the immune system is weakened. The disease is almost always asymptomatic, provided the immune system is functioning properly. However, toxoplasma must be cared for and contamination prevention measures must be taken during planning and during pregnancy.
Cats, babies and parasites
Pets are an irreplaceable source of allergens. It is believed that the presence of cats and dogs in the home protects children from allergies by providing an adequate pool of allergens in a relatively controlled manner. However, the presence of cats means that when planning pregnancy, steps should be taken to prevent transmission of toxoplasma to the mother.
Toksoplasma gondii is a protozoan parasite whose ultimate host is the cat. Sexual reproduction of the parasite takes place in the cat’s intestinal epithelium, infectious forms of the parasite enter the environment along with the animal’s feces. Many mammals, including humans, can become infected. The forms of the parasite in intermediate hosts, including humans, are limited in the so-called cysts inside tissues, including muscles. Cysts atrophy or degenerate due to the body’s natural defenses. Usually harmless parasites can cause severe congenital toxoplasmosis if they pass through the placenta with the mother’s blood.
Fetal toxoplasm can have very serious consequences including: miscarriage and hydrocephalus, retinitis, and brain damage in the baby.
Toxoplasm in people with a properly functioning immune system most often occurs only with flu-like symptoms or, similarly to mononucleosis, with enlargement of the lymph nodes.
When is a child at risk?
For a dangerous protozoan invasion to occur:
The contact of a pregnant woman with an infectious form of the parasite must be the first contact in a woman’s life. Secondary contact, in an immunocompetent person, is usually not dangerous. The antibodies produced on primary contact are usually effective in protecting against infection.
The parasite must be transmitted through the placenta. Maternal infection is not the same as infection of the fetus. In the case of toxoplasma, the later contact with the pathogen occurs, the greater the risk of fetal infection, but the lesser the effects of the disease.
How to protect yourself, how to heal yourself?
Protection against toxoplasm requires compliance with the following rules of hygiene and nutrition:
- Avoiding eating raw, undercooked meat and raw milk. Intermediate hosts of the parasite are a potential source of maternal and fetal infection.
- Thorough washing of vegetables and fruits, using protective gloves for gardening work. Avoiding contact with the parasite requires avoiding eating foods that have had potential contact with your cat’s feces. Working near the ground also requires reducing the risk of potential contact.
- Daily cleaning of the cat’s litter box (preferably not by a pregnant person) and washing hands after contact with the cat.
The above recommendations are especially important for pregnant women in whom no anti-toxoplasma antibodies have been detected (about 50% of women in Poland).
Protection of pregnant women also includes serological control tests before planned pregnancy. Due to the determination of the antibody profile, it is possible to exclude fresh toxoplasmic infection. In the absence of antibodies, it is advisable to monitor for infection by serological tests.
Treatment is essential if an infection is detected in a pregnant woman. Treatment must take place in a specialized center, and relies on the administration of protozoal drugs and close monitoring of pregnancy.
Before a planned pregnancy, control tests should be performed, also for toxoplasmosis.
Szczeklik, P. Gajewski, Interna Szczeklik.
Antoni Deryło, et al., Medical parasitology and acroentomology