It’s common knowledge that various strains of Toxoplasma gondii parasite, the cause of toxoplasmosis, are associated with health problems for pregnant women and babies, and this is why expectant moms are warned not to change kitty litter. However, until now, researchers haven’t been able to figure out which strains may cause the most damage to developing babies. Recently though, researchers have used a new blood test developed by scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, to pinpoint which T. gondii strains children are most likely to acquire from their infected mothers while in the womb. Researchers have also been able to link these common strains to which are most strongly associated with premature births and severe birth defects in the United States. Currently a simple blood tests can determine whether a person is infected with any strain of Toxoplasma parasite. This new experimental test developed at NIAID is much better though, because it detect the presence of strain-specific antibodies, meaning more effective treatments may be planned.

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Image by CDC James Gathany

Pregnant women are more likely than the general population to become infected with T. gondii. Pregnant women may be exposed through contact with cat feces, poor food handling practices or by eating undercooked meat. The result of an infection like this during pregnancy can easily result in miscarriage, premature birth, or babies with eye or brain damage. Because this infection is so dangerous, all pregnant women in France are screened for Toxoplasma infection and immediate treatment is offered, which means it’s less likely that the parasite will damage the fetus. However, NIAID grantee Rima McLeod, M.D., of the University of Chicago, who is the first author of the new study notes, “In the United States, obstetrical screening for Toxoplasma infection is rarely practiced. This new study underscores the value of identifying all patients who will benefit from treatment and suggests that widespread screening and treatment of pregnant women who are infected could prevent infants from suffering eye and brain damage due to congenital toxoplasmosis.” Using the new test, researchers found evidence that NE-II parasites were the most common in the U.S. and also the most likely to be associated with premature birth and infants born with severe manifestations of disease. NE-II parasites were also found to be more common along the Gulf Coast, the Pacific coast and in Hawaii as well as with women in lower-income and rural populations.

What this study means to you: If you happen to be pregnant and in the US, you should not only follow safe food handling practices, but safe cat practices too. For example, keep your cat uninfected by keeping it indoors, feeding him dry or canned cat food, not scraps and avoid strays. Additionally, discuss screenings for Toxoplasma infection with your midwife or doctor. You can’t always tell if you’ve been infected, and early diagnosis means a smaller chance that that your baby will be negatively affected.

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Lead Image by CDC James Gathany