Pregnancy Perils: The Facts About Toxoplasmosis
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By Mia Bolaris-Forget
If you're familiar with the term, then you’ve probably also heard that toxoplasmosis has most often been linked with your pet of choice, primarily cats and kittens. But before you decide to find fluffy a new home, you may want to get the inside scoop on this rare but real condition and how to protect yourself and your unborn baby.
Toxoplasmosis: An infection you may contract through exposure to a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. While medical professionals agree that the infection poses virtually NO threat to you, it may be extremely harmful to your baby and may cause developmental problems such as visual impairment, hearing impairment or even stunt mental growth leading to retardation. And experts remind women that while their chances of catching toxoplasmosis is relatively low, they remain “at risk” not only during pregnancy, but also prior to conception. They caution women to take the proper precautions, especially that, since due to it’s low incidence rate, there are generally no routine examinations for the disease (unless you are HIV positive).
The Odds of Infection: According to officials at the Centers for Disease Control, a very small percentage of women (about 14%) actually contract toxoplasmosis. While the numbers are small among pregnant women, they say that between 1 and 10 in 10,000 babies in the United States, contract the disease yearly. And they note, the earlier in your pregnancy that you contract toxoplasmosis, the less likely to transmit the disease to your unborn child, or have it (adversely) affect him/her. However, should your child be inflicted, the greater the chances of significant consequences.
Contracting Toxoplasmosis: The most common form of transmission is through (direct) exposure to cat feces (though experts warn avoiding the litter box all together). That doesn’t mean you have to get “evacuate” the family feline, it simply means that you could get someone to help you change the litter box during your pregnancy (even during the time frame in which you are “trying”). Experts further remind women (of child bearing age) that garden soil, unwashed produce, and even a child’s sandbox are also breeding grounds for this toxic parasite.
Keep in mind that undercooked meats (such as beef, chicken, and especially pork), or eggs may also contain the “bug” and put you at risk. And, experts emphasize that even if you’re a vegetarian or refrain from indulging in “rare” steaks, burgers, etc, you may expose yourself to the parasite simply by coming in contact with your hands or other items and kitchen utensils that were “contaminated” by the raw meat. Unpasteurized, contaminated milk (especially goat’s milk) or contaminated water are additional health hazards.
Detecting Toxoplasmosis: Unfortunately toxoplasmosis in not easily detected, in fact most adults experience little if any symptoms, and those that do experience fever, chills, headache, sore throat, muscle pains, fatigue, swollen glands and sometimes a rash (after a few weeks), and generally attribute it to having caught the flu. If you experience any of the mentioned symptoms or believe you’ve been exposed to the parasite and are at risk, experts suggest setting up an appointment for immediate examination. Your doctor or midwife will do a blood test to check for two antibodies (lgG and lgM). The results may indicate whether you currently have the disease or have been previously “infected”, thus making you immune to it. If you test positive for antibodies but it remains unclear as to how recent the infection is, a subsequent test in three weeks will most likely be (and should be) recommended.
Positive Diagnosis and Consequences: Positive test results (during pregnancy) will most likely warrant you doctor prescribing antibiotics to help reduce your risk of transmitting the disease to your child. Additionally, an amniocentesis will likely be conducted to determine whether or not your baby has been exposed to the infection. A series of ultrasounds will also be advised to check for any developmental abnormalities during your pregnancy.
Amniotic fluid that reveals infection or an ultrasound that show “abnormalities” should be followed by a meeting with a genetic counselor to discuss the risks to your unborn child. Depending on your baby’s gestational age, you will be counseled and advised accordingly. Additional “damage control” antibiotics may also be prescribed until you are about 20 weeks.
Treating The Child: The affect on your child may range from mild to severe….and may rarely but potentially result in brain damage, miscarriage, still birth, or death shortly after birth. Experts note that only 1 in 10 babies actually show signs of toxoplasmosis at birth, but some possible after birth symptoms to look out for may include a rash, jaundice, a low platelet count, enlarged lymph nodes, liver, or spleen. Symptoms such as vision problems, and developmental impediments may not show up until many years later.
A newborn that tests positive for toxoplasmosis will generally be treated with antibiotics for at least one year, even is symptoms are not apparent. The child will also receive special hearing and eye exams, a sonogram or CAT scan of his/her head, and other exams of evaluation. While treatment may not reverse the damage, it may reduce your child’s risk of developing additional problems.
Preventative “Medicine”…Methods of Avoiding Toxoplasmosis: The best medicine is preventative medicine. Good hygiene and healthy eating habits combined with food safety are a good place to start. Additional precautions include:
· Cleanse and/or peel fruits and veggies before eating
· Abstain from raw eggs and unpasteurized milk
· Thoroughly wash hands before preparing meals, and especially after coming in contact with raw meat, soil, sand, or cats
· Refrain from touching your face (eyes, nose, mouth) while preparing food.
· Thoroughly wash counter, cutting boards, and utensils with hot, soapy water before and after food preparation.
· Keep flies and roaches away from your food.
· Avoid contaminated water when camping or traveling to developing countries.
· Get help with “hazardous” chores. Have someone else empty the cat’s litter. If you don’t have anyone to rely on, experts suggest wearing rubber gloves, maybe even a facemask and meticulously washing your hands afterward.
· Avoid close contact with kitty, especially if he/she has outdoor exposure and refrain from having kitty sleep on your bed.
· Forgo feeding kitty raw, uncooked, or even undercooked meats. Restrict him/her from hunting down animals and rodents and try to keep him/her indoors as much as possible.
· Avoid playing with strays and don’t get a new kitten or cat while you’re pregnant.
· Wear waterproof gloves (and even a facemask) while you are gardening and thoroughly wash hands when done.
· If you have other children, cover the sandbox when not in use. Avoid public sandboxes as well (Toxoplasmosis generally won’t be dangerous for your “toddler” and you can’t catch it from him/her) but you do need to steer clear of sand and other areas that may contain cat feces.
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