Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic disease caused by Toxoplasma gondii. In adult humans, these infections usually cause no particular symptoms; Sometimes a mild flu-like illness may occur, characterized by muscle aches and lymphadenopathy, lasting approximately 2-8 weeks (very rarely, eye impairment appears).
In immunosuppressed people, severe symptoms, such as seizures and difficulty in coordination, can occur.
If the infection occurs during pregnancy, the unborn child can contract the so-called congenital toxoplasmosis and remain severely (as well as irreversibly) compromised.
Diet and overall hygiene are the most important factors for the prevention of contagion. The disease is rarely spread by blood transfusions and cannot be spread otherwise.
The parasite only reproduces in cats; however, it can infect most warm-blooded animals, which is why its cysts can be found in various edible meats.
The diagnosis is made by blood analysis (referring to antibodies) or, in the pregnant woman, by verifying the presence of parasitic DNA in the amniotic fluid. In healthy people, no treatment is usually needed; during pregnancy, on the other hand, drugs such as spiramycin or pyrimethamine / sulfadiazine and folinic acid can be used.
Half of the world population (more in developing countries) is infected with Toxoplasma gondii and shows no symptoms; Unfortunately, around 200.000 cases of congenital toxoplasmosis are diagnosed each year.
Food and Contagion
A multi-center European case-control study concluded that the consumption of raw and undercooked meat is the main source of contagion in pregnancy, while contact with contaminated soil contributes to a much smaller rate of infections.
Toxoplasmosis infection can develop in several ways:
- Eating raw or undercooked food contaminated with Toxoplasma gondii cysts (or raw milk containing tachyzoites);
- For oral exposure to the faeces of infected cats.
- From infected mother to child during pregnancy.
- For organ transplants or blood transfusions from toxoplasma positive donors.
The first two are food and fecal-oral infections, which occur mainly in the following circumstances:
- Ingestion of raw or undercooked meat. Not surprisingly, the prevalence of infections concerns the countries in which it is customary to consume meat that has not undergone heat treatment (or undercooked).
Tissue cysts can also be ingested by putting your hands to your mouth while processing the product or using contaminated knives, various utensils and cutting boards.
- Ingestion of unwashed fruit or vegetables that have come into contact with soil contaminated with feces from infected cats (for example, products from your own garden).
- Ingestion of contaminated cat fecal debris through hand-to-mouth transmission (for example, by eating a snack while gardening or after cleaning the litter box or after touching sand on which a cat has previously defecated).
La diet to prevent toxoplasmosis it mainly affects pregnant women who, if infected, can transmit the parasite to the fetus, making it seriously ill.
Congenital toxoplasmosis contracted in the first weeks of gestation is associated with fetal death and abortion and, in survivors, is accompanied by neurological deficits, neurocognitive deficits and chorioretinitis.
If the mother has already contracted toxoplasmosis she is considered to be less at risk, as she already has the specific antibodies and should no longer become acutely ill.
In the event that the woman has never fallen ill with toxoplasmosis, the most important preventive dietary rules for dealing with a pregnancy are:
- Stock up with the safest foods possible.
- Work food in a hygienically correct way.
- Do not clean the cat's litter box and wash your hands thoroughly before bringing any food to your mouth.
Precautions to reduce the possibility of contracting toxoplasmosis
- Avoid the consumption of raw or undercooked meats and sausages (eg cured meats and raw ham).
- Cook the meat well as well as ready-made frozen dishes
- Wash fruit and vegetables (including prepared salads) well before handling and consumption
- Protect food from flies and other insects.
- Use rubber gloves to handle raw meat of any kind or to wash vegetables.
- Avoid contact with mucous membranes after handling raw meat
- Wash surfaces, kitchen utensils and hands that have come into contact with raw meat, poultry, fish, fruit and vegetables with soap and water.
- Use rubber gloves to handle soil (e.g. gardening) and any other material potentially contaminated with cat feces.
- If there is a cat in the house, it is not necessary to move it away, but it is advisable to clean the litter box daily. If possible, entrust this task to others and in any case always use rubber gloves. Feed the cat cooked or canned foods. Do not bring other cats into the house. Avoid contact with stray cats.
Furthermore, Toxoplasma gondii can be eliminated from the diet by various methods:
- Never drink non-potable water; the wells are potentially subject to contamination by black waters, rich in any type of pathogen (including Toxoplasma gondii)
- Avoid handling foods that may contain cysts (raw meat and raw goat and sheep milk).
- Wash fruit and vegetables (potentially contaminated outside only).
- Cook the head vegetables (which, in addition to growing on the ground, are more difficult to clean).
- Choose only farmed meat (temporarily eliminate game and meat from animals raised at home).
- Blast the meat or freeze it at -20 ° C for at least 15 days.
- Cook the meat (reaching at least 66 ° C at the core of the food).
- Use only packaged milk, as it is heat treated.
- Do not buy cheeses made from raw milk, especially from small companies or, even worse, at home level.
- Avoid raw preserved meats (salami, sausage, ham, speck, loin, pancetta, capocollo, bresaola, etc.); it is believed that a long seasoning and smoking can eliminate the parasite cysts but, given the danger of the organism during pregnancy, it is better to avoid them.
Infected Meat: Which?
The animals most affected by this contamination are: pork, lamb and game. Among the various types of livestock raised, the greatest rates of infection are: pigs, sheep, goats and chickens.
Cattle can be contaminated by the pathogen but their organism is able to heal completely (eliminating it with the faeces in a few weeks); flesh cysts are very rare. Horses, on the other hand, are generally considered resistant to infestation but this is not an irrefutable rule.
Although Toxoplasma gondii has the ability to infect virtually all warm-blooded animals, susceptibility and infection rates vary greatly between species, regarding habitat or breeding, diet, and many other factors.
In particular, hygienic conditions and farming techniques appear to have a major impact on the risk of contamination. For example, animals kept outdoors are more at risk of infection than those raised indoors or in partial confinement.
Thanks to the lack of exposure to the outside, even chickens raised in confinement are generally not infected with the parasite, while those free-range or raised in the open are much more susceptible to the disease; on the other hand, we also know that excessive confinement can cause other types of pathologies, such as bacterial and viral ones.
The meats to be consumed cooked represent the least risky foods compared to the others (especially birds). However, let's not forget that from certain animals (pigs and sheep, some of which belong to the game group) it is possible to obtain raw preserved preparations, such as: ham, culatello, speck, loin, pancetta, salami, sausage, etc.
Tissue cysts are rarely found in buffalo or beef, which is considered a low risk food for parasites.
Cat Diet and Toxoplasmosis
The risk of contagion due to toxoplasmosis increases:
- As hygienic conditions decrease.
- With the consumption of meats of dubious healthiness.
- In the presence of inappropriate behavior and with exposure to infected cat feces.
First of all, it is necessary to specify that, by itself, the presence of a domestic feline does NOT increase the risk of the disease. In fact, if the animal is a domestic type, while increasing the chances of contact, the chances of the cat getting sick decrease.
The rate of infection in cats varies greatly depending on the diet and lifestyle they lead. Wild ones that hunt for food are more likely to get infected than domesticated ones. The prevalence of Toxoplasma gondii in cats depends mainly on the availability of infected animals, such as small mammals (mice and rats) and birds, which are generally abundant in the area.
After contracting the disease, cats excrete the pathogen in their feces for several weeks. On excretion, these are generally not contagious for at least 24-48 hours, that is, until the cysts mature and become pathogenic; these can survive in the environment for over a year.
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