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Toxoplasmosis – an illness that results from infection with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Health experts in the United States estimate that about 60 million Americans are infected with T. gondii, though only a small percentage of them become ill. T. gondii may migrate into body tissues, forming cysts.
Domestic cats carry T. gondii; cat feces in litter boxes and outdoors in garden areas are the most common source of infection. Outdoor cats are more likely to have T. gondii. Other sources of T. gondii include undercooked or raw meats, especially pork and lamb.
People acquire the infection through touching contaminated objects and then transmitting the parasites to food or drink. Children may acquire T. gondii infection through playing in outdoor sandboxes.
Toxoplasmosis is often an opportunistic infection that causes illness in people who are immunocompromised, such as people who have hiv/aids or who are taking immunosuppressive therapy after organ transplantation.
Toxoplasmosis, whether or not it produces symptoms, is a particular risk for a pregnant woman because she can pass the infection to her unborn child. The cysts that T. gondii form in the tissues can cause serious birth defects in the developing fetus, including damage to the eyes that results in permanent loss of vision. hearing loss and neurologic injuries are also common.
Symptoms, when they occur, are similar to those of influenza and may include
- Muscle aches and joint pain
- Upper respiratory congestion
- Tiredness or fatigue
A blood test that shows the presence of antibodies confirms the diagnosis. Anyone who has ever had toxoplasmosis will have a positive blood test; infection confers lifelong immunity. Toxoplasmosis is self-limiting; once the illness runs its course any symptoms subside. Though the T. gondii remain in the body, the immune system can contain them so they do not cause illness.
Doctors may recommend treatment with sulfadoxine and pyrimethamine, two medications used to prevent malaria, for pregnant women who acquire T. gondii infection or develop toxoplasmosis and for people who are immunocompromised.
These medications are effective because T. gondii is similar to the parasite that causes malaria. The antibiotic clindamycin is also effective in people who are immunocompromised.
Washing the hands with warm water and soap after handling cats, cleaning litter boxes, gardening, and preparing pork or lamb removes T. gondii, preventing infection. Pregnant women should also wear gloves when gardening or cleaning litter boxes.
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