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Toxoplasmosis and Pregnancy - Should I show my cat the door?

Toxoplasmosis is an infection that is spread by a microscopic parasite known as ‘Toxoplasma gondii’. Although the infection is known to cause a very mild and symptomless illness in individuals with healthy immune systems, it is fairly risky during pregnancy considering that they parasite can infect the placenta as well as your developing baby.

Research studies have shown that around 400-4,000 babies are born in the United States each year (as compared to over 4 million births each year) with toxoplasmosis. This condition is known as congenital toxoplasmosis and can be milk or severe, leading to stillbirth, neurological damage, long-term structural damage and several other devastating effects. However, if you can prevent yourself from getting infected in the first place, there really isn’t much to worry about. The infection is caught by handling soil or cat litter that contains feces infected with the parasite. Apart from that, you may also get infected by eating undercooked meat from animals infected with the parasite or from uncooked foods that may have come in contact with contaminated meat. Given below is all that you need to know about toxoplasmosis and how it may affect your pregnancy and baby:

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7 Your chances of getting toxoplasmosis and infecting your developing baby

As stated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just about 15 percent of women who are of childbearing age happen to be immune to toxoplasmosis. However, the good news is that the number of women who actually contract the infection during their pregnancy happens to be rather small and not all of them transmit the infection to their babies.

As your pregnancy continues to progress, your baby’s risk of becoming infected rises as well. For instance, if you catch the toxoplasmosis infection in the first trimester of your pregnancy, the risk of your baby contracting the infection as well happens to be around 15%. On the other hand, if you get infected by the virus in the second trimester of your pregnancy, your baby’s risk of getting infected doubles and goes up to 30%. Your baby is at highest risk of infection – at a full 60% - during the third trimester of your pregnancy. But what’s most interesting is that although the transmission rates are much higher in late pregnancy, toxoplasmosis is believed to be much more severe for your baby if you contract the infection in the first trimester.

Further risk

Just so you know, there also happens to be a small risk of your baby getting infected if you contract the infection a few months BEFORE getting pregnant. So if you’ve been infected recently, it is best for you to wait about six months before trying to conceive.

6 The effects of toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis can have several rather severe effects with babies at birth. These are inclusive of:

  • Premature delivery
  • Stillbirth
  • Physical damage
  • Neurological damage

In most cases, an infected baby tends to appear perfectly normal at birth, and goes on to develop severe disabilities later in life. The disabilities that such children may develop include mental retardation, learning disabilities and eye disorders. Toxoplasmosis is quite like German measles or Rubella. Most people can have an active infection of toxoplasmosis once in their lives. If anything, a single toxoplasmosis infection before getting pregnant can go a long way in protecting your unborn baby during a subsequent pregnancy. But for this, you should have an immune system that has not been weakened by transplant anti-rejection drugs or cancer drugs.

However, if you have never had an active infection before, it is extremely important for you to take steps all through your pregnancy to protect your baby. If you don’t take these steps and get infected during your pregnancy, there is a good chance that your developing baby will get infection, which can lead to severe consequences – even if you continue to feel just fine and remain symptomless.

Can I become immune to toxoplasmosis?

There are a few blood tests that your doctor may perform to find out if you have ever had an active infection of toxoplasmosis or if you are currently infected. However, unless your doctor says others, it is best for you to just presume that you are susceptible to the infection and take the necessary steps to avoid it.

5 Symptoms of the infection

As long as you are healthy, there’s a good chance that you won’t even get to know that you have a toxoplasmosis infection. However, some people tend to develop symptoms similar to those of the flu. These are inclusive of:

  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Severe body aches
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Excessive fatigue

In case you have HIV/AIDS, have had an organ transplant recently or are receiving chemotherapy, there is always the chance that a previous infection of toxoplasmosis may get reactivated. In such a case, you will be prone to developing severe signs and symptoms of this infection. These include:

  • Severe headache
  • Poor coordination
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Lung problems
  • Severe inflammation of the retina that can lead to blurred vision

With such extreme symptoms, it is highly recommended for you to get in touch with your doctor right away. If you aren’t pregnant at the moment, you should wait for another 6 months after treatment before trying to conceive a baby, considering that a recent infection (even if it is treated) can put your developing baby at risk in the womb.

What about my baby if I get infected during pregnancy?

In case you become infected with toxoplasmosis for the first time just before or during pregnancy, the infection may get passed on to your baby irrespective of whether you have symptoms yourself. The risk of passing on the infection to your baby will be at its peak if you become infected in the third trimester. However, your baby will be least at risk if you get infected during the first trimester. 

4 Getting tested for toxoplasmosis

Women, or pregnant women in particular, are not routinely tested for toxoplasmosis. For this reason, if you’re afraid that you may have an active infection during pregnancy, make sure that you talk to your doctor about it so he may prescribe a blood test. There are chances that the blood sample acquired at your booking appointment can be tested to find out whether you are immune to the infection or not.

The test recommended for toxoplasmosis is focused on looking for antibodies. These are basically proteins that are produced by your body to fight away the active toxoplasmosis infection. However, there is no way for these antibodies to show up in a blood test until about 2-3 weeks after an infection because they do not build up straight way in the body. In case you get a negative blood test, it means that you have never had a toxoplasmosis infection and are not immune against it. Just to be certain of things, your doctor may ask for a repeat test as the antibodies appear a few weeks after you’ve been exposed to the infection.

What about a positive blood test?

In case you get a positive blood test, it means there are antibodies present in your blood. As with most cases, this may be because you’ve been exposed to the virus and have developed an immunity against it. The good news is that this means that the infection will not affect your baby. However, if you’ve contracted the virus during your pregnancy, it can be a major risk to your baby. In either case, your baby is going to be tested for toxoplasmosis right after birth too.

3 Should I get rid of my cat?

People may have told you that cat feces is one of the most major sources of toxoplasmosis. This, however, in no way means that you should get rid of your pet cat. However, to be able to keep your beloved pet, it is necessary for you to take a few extra precautions. To learn how you can refrain from getting infected, here’s a bit of information about how cats become infected and then transmit the infection to humans.

As you may have heard, felines happen to be a natural host for the parasite. It reproduces in their intestines, and cats gets infected by eating infected prey or undercooked meat, or by consuming contaminated water or unpasteurized milk. The parasites then continue to form ‘ooysts’ in the cat’s gut, and up to a million of these are excreted by the cats for nearly three weeks – that too on a daily basis. What’s worst is that these oocysts can’t be seen with the naked eye, so you really can’t tell that your cat is infected. After 24 hours of being excreted, these the oocysts become infections and can continue to thrive in litter, sand or soil – and they can remain infectious for another 18 months. All through this period, they continue to spread, contaminate vegetables, fruits and water, and infect warm-blooded species that come in contact with them.

So what do I do?

The reason why you shouldn’t focus on getting rid of your cat is simple: although you can get infected by toxoplasmosis oocytes from direct contact with its feces (such as while handling its litter), there is always the chance that you will get infected by other elements. This includes drinking contaminated water and eating unwashed vegetables too. 

2 Can it be prevented if I have a cat?

If you have a pet cat, then it is highly recommended for you to follow a few simple guidelines to make sure that you don’t get infected with toxoplasmosis. These guidelines should particularly be followed by pregnant women for their own and their baby’s safety. To begin with, refrain from emptying your cat’s litter box – get someone else to do it on a daily basis. This is going to go a long way in helping you reduce the risk of infection because the oocytes are not infectious for the first 24 hours after excretion. If you have no one else to do the job for you, make sure that you wear disposable gloves while cleaning the litter and wash your hands properly later on.

To put things more into perspective, research studies have shown that nearly 60% of all transmissions of the toxoplasmosis infection can easily be prevented by simply limiting exposure to inadequately cooked or cured meat. This means that cleaning cat litter isn’t the sole cause of the spread of this virus. For this reason, experts claim that even if you don’t eat undercooked meat, it is best for you to take extra precautions when handling uncooked meat, particularly raw sausages, lamb and beef. Once you’re done with cutting raw meat, make sure that you wash your hands and the cutting board as thoroughly as possible. As for the meat, it is highly recommended for you to cook it till it is well done with no pink areas remaining on it.

What about my cat?

To protect your cat from getting infected, make sure that you only feed him commercial cat food or well-cooked table scraps. Never feed undercooked or raw meat to your cat. Also, try to keep it indoors so that it doesn’t hunt down infected prey like birds or mice.

1 What treatment options are available these days?

If you have contracted the infection for the first time during your pregnancy, there is a good chance that your doctor will recommend antibiotics to treat it. If anything, it is going to keep your baby protected against the infection. The usual antibiotic used for this purpose is called Spiramycin, but your doctor may prescribe other antibiotics.

Apart from the basic antibiotic treatment, you may additionally require emotional support and a fair deal of counseling to help you decide what you wish to do if you get infected during pregnancy. Most people continue with their pregnancy for the simple reason that there is no way to diagnose whether the developing baby has been infected or not. You will also receive a lot of support from your doctor and midwife. Early identification and treatment of this infection can increase the chances of your baby not contracting the infection. In case your baby does become infected, he will be given medications as well to reduce the severity of the infection. Your baby will probably be treated all through the first year of his life, although all treatment options will be discussed with you by your health care provider.

Termination of pregnancy

Developing toxoplasmosis during pregnancy can be a nerve-wrecking experience. In the most severe cases, there may even be a need for you to terminate your pregnancy. This is suggested to women who develop the infection between conception and the 24th week of their pregnancy. However, if you continue your pregnancy, there will be a dire need for your baby to be treated up to a full year once you deliver him. 

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