The solid wastes (feces) of cats may contain a parasite called toxoplasma gondii that can cause toxoplasmosis, a rare but serious blood infection. Toxoplasmosis can also be contracted by eating infected, undercooked meat or by eating contaminated fruit or vegetables. If you have had cats for some time, you may have already been exposed to toxoplasmosis and developed immunity to it.
Toxoplasmosis is most common in areas with warm, moist climates. More then 50% of the population in Central and Southern Europe, Africa, South America and Asia are infected with toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis is common in France possibly due to the preference of minimally cooked and raw meat.
In the United States, 1 out of 1,000-8,000 babies are born with toxoplasmosis. Veterinary clinics, animal shelters, and meat packing operations are environments conducive to transmission.
For women who are not immune to toxoplasmosis, exposure to this parasite just prior to or during pregnancy may cause the fetus to be infected. The fetus is at greatest risk of serious damage if the infection occurs in the first three months of pregnancy.
During the last three months of pregnancy the fetus is at a greater risk of becoming infected, but the risk of serious damage to the fetus from an infection in the last three months is small. Effects on the baby include: premature birth, low birth weight, fever, jaundice, abnormalities of the retina, mental retardation, abnormal head size, convulsions, and brain calcification.
Most healthcare providers will routinely screen for toxoplasmosis immunity before pregnancy or during the first prenatal visit. A blood test can determine if you have been exposed. If toxoplasmosis is present during pregnancy, treatment with antibiotics will be given for several months to reduce the risk of severe damage to the baby. Cordocentesis is a test that can determine whether an infection has occurred during pregnancy.
Reprinted with permission from American Pregnancy Association