Toxoplasmosis (tok-so-plaz-MO-sis) is an infection caused by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite that animals can transmit to people.
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Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by the microscopic parasite * Toxo-plasma gondii, which infects the cells of warm-blooded animals, especially cats. People get toxoplasmosis primarily by eating infected meat that has been undercooked. It is estimated that 14 percent of pork and 10 percent of lamb meat contain this parasite. The parasite can be killed by thorough cooking.
* parasites are creatures that live in and feed on the bodies of other organisms. The animal or plant harboring the parasite is called its
People also can get toxoplasmosis by touching infected cat stool. This may happen when cleaning cat litter boxes, when gardening, or when petting a cat. Pregnant women can pass the disease to their unborn babies. In rare cases, blood transfusions, organ transplants, and laboratory accidents also can cause toxoplasmosis.
Toxoplasmosis is a life-long infection, although usually it is latent (inactive). Most people with toxoplasmosis do not get sick. The disease can be life threatening, however, for people with weakened immune systems * and for babies born with the disease, who can have severe organ damage, especially to the eyes and brain. Toxoplasmosis also may cause miscarriage or stillbirth (the baby is born dead).
What Are the Symptoms of Toxoplasmosis?
Most people with toxoplasmosis, including pregnant women, have no symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they usually appear within 10 days of exposure, and they vary with age and the response of the immune system. Children with toxoplasmosis fall into three groups:
- Babies born with toxoplasmosis: Congenital infection occurs when babies get toxoplasmosis before birth from their mothers. Most of these babies (85 percent) appear normal at birth but later have learning disabilities, movement disorders, mental retardation, and loss of vision.
- Healthy children who become infected: These children may have no symptoms, or they may have swollen glands, fever, general tiredness, and weakness.
- Children with immune disorders such as AIDS or cancer: These children may have severe infections, which attack the central nervous system, brain, lungs, and heart. Symptoms may include fever, seizures, headache, psychosis (severe mental disturbance), and problems in vision, speech, movement, or thinking.
For most people who get toxoplasmosis after birth, symptoms may include:
- night sweats
- weight loss
- general tiredness
- sore throat
- muscle pain
- swollen glands
- calcium deposits in the brain.
* immune system is the body's defense system, fighting off affacks by viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other foreign substances that can cause illness or hurt the body.
How Is Toxoplasmosis Diagnosed and Treated?
Toxoplasmosis is diagnosed through blood tests, laboratory tests of fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord, and x-rays of the head. It can be diagnosed in pregnant women and in their unborn babies. Toxoplasmosis can be treated with prescription medication, but women who are pregnant must be careful about taking medication because of the harm that may be done to the developing baby.
How Is Toxoplasmosis Prevented?
Toxoplasmosis can be prevented by careful attention to hygiene and sanitation. Preventive steps include:
- Thoroughly cooking meats.
- Washing hands, utensils, and food preparation surfaces after handling meats.
- Washing fruits and vegetables before eating them.
- Keeping flies and cockroaches away from food.
- Washing hands after petting cats, changing litter boxes, working in the garden, or cleaning sandboxes.
- Keeping outdoor sandboxes covered when not in use so that they will not be used as litter boxes by cats.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 100 Clifton Road
N.E., Atlanta, GA 30333. CDC's Division of Parasitic Diseases
(DPD) posts a fact sheet about toxoplasmosis at its website.