toxoplasmosis-and-pregnancy.jpgToxoplasmosis is a cat parasite that can infect a pregnant woman if the woman touches cat waste, which is why pregnant women are told not to change cat litter boxes while pregnant. The parasite is also present in meat that is not fully cooked. When a pregnant woman is infected with toxoplasmosis – caused by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite – she can pass the infection on to the fetus. In some cases, fetuses infected with the parasite are born premature and may suffer from brain or eye damage.

Not all strains of toxoplasmosis cause birth defects. Researchers have isolated the specific strains of T. gondii responsible for birth defects and premature birth. With that knowledge, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseasescreated a blood test to determine if pregnant women had come in contact with T. gondii and contracted toxoplasmosis.

Researchers were able to distinguish 15 strains in particular that caused most of birth defects and prematurity. The strains were split into two groups – Type II and not Type II (NE-II). NE-II was associated with more premature deliveries and eye damage than Type II strains.

It was noted in the study that pregnant women in France are tested for T. gondii. If the parasite is found, the woman is treated for the infection. Treatment significantly reduces the chance that the fetus will be affected by the parasite. In the United States, however, pregnant women are rarely tested for Toxoplasmosis – though the risk of infection is well-known.

Now that a new test is available that pinpoints the most aggressive strains of parasite, there could be a stronger integration attempt in the prenatal testing process. Without a positive test, the fetus can be harmed before the infection is recognized. The most common symptoms of a toxoplasmosis infection are headache, body ache, fatigue and fever, in some cases. Many pregnant women suffer most of these symptoms every day as a natural part of pregnancy.

Source: R. McLeod, et al. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 19 April, 2012.