Toxoplasma gondii is a single-cell protozoan (a class of organisms separate from bacteria and viruses). It is commonly found in soil. It is also found in the feces of infected animals, and has a well-deserved reputation for being in the feces of cats who roam outdoors. Meat is also a source of the organism.
Approximately one-third to one-half of women have antibodies to toxoplasmosis. This indicates past exposure and current immunity. Toxoplasmosis infection is relatively rare, but much more common in some groups of women than others (probably related to public health factors). The incidence of infection during pregnancy ranges from 1 case in 1,000 births to 1 case in 4, 000 births.
The disease in pregnant women is difficult to diagnose, and responds poorly to treatment. Fortunately, most women suspected of becoming infected during pregnancy will not have a baby affected by the disease. However, when a fetus is infected, the results can be very disturbing.
Many midwives and doctors refer to the screening, diagnosis, and treatment of toxoplasmosis as a “Pandora’s Box”……once you lift the lid and peek inside, the demons escape. What this means is that if one choses to be tested for the organism, it may be difficult to tell when infection occurred, whether or not the baby was infected, what the effects on the fetus are, and what the proper treatment should be.
Attempts to diagnose the infection rely on blood-testing for antibodies to the the toxoplasmosis organism. Soon after infection, the body produces IgM antibodies specific to the organism. As the body fights the infection, IgG antibodies are produced and the IgM antibodies disappear. After the initial infection presence of the IgG antibody indicates immunity…….about 1/2 of women of childbearing age are already immune. Unfortunately, unlike other diseases in which IgM antibodies decrease in the weeks after infection, IgM antibodies to toxoplasmosis may persist for years.
When infection occurs in pregnancy, a mother probably should be treated. However, the best treatment involves 2 antibiotic-type drugs, one of which should not be given in early pregnancy and the other not in late pregnancy. The best treatment is reserved for the baby after birth.
Prevention is probably the best course of action for a pregnant woman.
- Avoid raw meats, cats, cat litter or soil if you can.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after handling cats, raw meats, cat litter or soil.
- Sanitize your meat cutting boards with dilute chlorine bleach solution after use.
- Cook meat thoroughly…..do not eat pink meats, or any suspected undercooked meat.
- Do not drink unpastueurized milk.
- Wash all fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly before preparing and eating.