You may have heard of the risk of toxoplasmosis in pregnancy and the risk of catching it via pet cats, but what are the facts and what should you do if you are worried about it?
What is toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a micorscopic parasite (toxoplasma gondii).
Research shows that 50 per cent of people in their 70s test positive for a past toxoplasmosis infection so it can be commonly caught. Once you have had the infection, you are immune and will not suffer another episode.
It does not have any serious side effects for a person when they develop the infection, except sometimes fluey symptoms.
It cannot be passed person to person, however, the infection can cross the placenta and infect the unborn baby, which is of far greater concern.
Because it can be easily contracted but not obviously noticed, the best way to detect the infection is through blood tests. According to the baby charity Tommy's, only about 15 per cent of women booking in for their first antenatal appointment are usually already immune.
How might I get infected?
If you eat something which has been infected with cat faeces, you can get the infection. Obviously you are not going to eat your pet moggy's poo (!), but soil (or possibly a children's sandpit) where a cat has been can be affected. The parasite can also enter the body through cuts or abrasions on the skin, which is why it's important to let other people do the gardening or change a litter tray when you are pregnant. Another option is to wear thick gloves to protect yourself.
If you eat raw or undercooked meat you are also at risk from exposure. Barbecues should be of special concern for pregnant women, not just because of toxoplasmosis but other food-related poisoning which can have a devastating affect on the unborn child, even if the woman normally considers herself to have 'a strong constitution'. It is important to store raw meat correctly, and to wash utensils and chopping boards etc thoroughly after preparing them during cooking. (It is preferable to have a separate chopping board for preparing raw meat.)
Unwashed vegetables and fruit are also dangerous so make sure you prepare your meals thoroughly or wash fruit and salads you have bought when you're out and about.
It is also possible to be infected by eating unpasteurised goats' milk products, though it is advisable to steer clear of all unpasteurised foods when you are pregnant, anyway. Additionally, when you are pregnant you should avoid contact with sheep, especially new lambs.
What if I live with a cat?
If you have a cat, there is a strong possibility that you will already have been infected by toxoplasmosis and be immune to new infection. Ask your doctor for a blood test if you are at all concerned.
How might if affect my unborn baby?
If you do have a positive blood test and you are aware that you caught the infection after getting pregnant (any time before that, you are safe), it can take between four and eight weeks for the infection to pass to your baby.
It is believed that only about 40 per cent of infections pass to the baby and much less (about 15 per cent) if the infection occurs during the first three months of the pregnancy. This rises to a 65 per cent chance of infection in the last trimester of pregnancy.
Infections which affect the baby in early or mid-term pregnancy can bring about miscarriage or stillbirth. Or the baby can develop abnormalities which include brain damage, deafness, blindness or epilepsy.
Infections contracted later in pregnancy, despite this being more likely, tend not to have such severe effects. Some problems may develop as the child grows and are often related to eye health.
What can be done about it?
Apart from exercising extreme care and caution with cats and uncooked foods (see How might I get infected? above), if you get a positive blood test and believe the infection to have happened during your pregnancy, there are certain treatments you can be offered.
If there has not been enough time for the infection to pass to your baby then you might be offered a specific antibiotic treatment to reduce the risk of infection passing on.
If there is a danger of the baby having been affected and you are more than 15 weeks gone, you can be offered amniocentisis, where a sample of amniotic fluid can be tested. In this case, antibiotics might help reduce the severity of the infection.
A scan might show the extent of physical abnormalities.
Close care of babies who have been infected with toxoplasmosis can help after the child is born.
What about breastfeeding?
It is safe to breastfeed as the infection is not transmitted in this way.