You may have had friends and relatives warn you about keeping away from cat litter and lambing sheep when you are pregnant, or even whilst trying for a baby, but do you know why?

Well, it’s not an old wives’ tale. The problem is something called toxoplasmosis.

Toxoplasmosis is a common, infectious disease caused by parasites, and is easily transmitted to humans. It can be caught from contact with cat faeces (hence the exhortations to avoid cat litter), though touching raw meat is often the most likely culprit, as well as contact with human faecal matter.

For many people, contact with toxoplasmosis is harmless; during the first few weeks after being exposed to the parasite, some people suffer mild flu symptoms, but many others have no symptoms at all. After this period, the majority of people suffer no ill effects at all, and indeed it’s estimated that up to a half of the UK’s human population is infected, alongside most birds and other warm blooded mammals. It cannot be passed on from human to human, but can be passed through the placenta to an unborn child.

The problems come for adults and children who for some reason have a weakened immune system, or are pregnant. These individuals stand a greater risk of become seriously ill, suffering symptoms such as inflammation and enlargement of the brain (encephalitis), eye damage, or damage to the heart, liver or ears. Infection has also been linked to neurological diseases and, in rare cases, skin lesions.

The infection can cause serious problems for an unborn child too. A foetus can be infected via the placenta, and if the mother has not been exposed to the infection before, the baby is at particular risk. If a baby is born with the condition, it is called congenital toxoplasmosis, and can cause problems in later life, such as seizures.

Pregnant women or women trying to conceive should avoid handling raw meats, stay away from cat litter and always wear gloves when gardening.They should also avoid contact with sheep and their newborns, and not consume unpasteurised goats’ milk or cheese.

Many adult women will have been exposed to the disease before, but the only way to check is through blood screening. This is not routinely done in most countries. However, don’t panic; just 3 in 100,000 babies in the UK are born with the condition, so it is rare.

Pregnant women or women trying to conceive should take care to avoid handling raw meats, and not empty the cat litter or risk touching cat faeces. They should also avoid gardening without gloves, as cat faeces are often found in garden soil, even in households, which don’t own a cat! They should also avoid contact with sheep and their newborns, and not consume unpasteurised goats’ milk or cheese.

If you suspect you have come in contact with toxoplasmosis for the first time whilst pregnant, it’s important to seek medical treatment. Your GP can carry out a blood test, and if the results are positive then will probably prescribe antibiotics. They may recommend an amniocentesis to check whether your baby has become infected, but as mentioned earlier, this is rare. Fortunately, taking some basic precautions should ensure toxoplasmosis is not a problem in the majority of pregnancies.

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