Credit: Flickr user kevindooley
Toxoplasmosis is a serious disease when transmitted from a pregnant mother to the unborn fetus, potentially resulting in stillbirth, brain damage, or long-term eye damage that can lead to blindness. Even worse, it’s extremely common in a most common animal, the house cat—and it’s easily transmissible from cats to humans. The parasite that causes it, Toxoplasma gondii, is found in one-third to one-half of all humans—over two billion individuals! This potential killer likes to take up residence inside your brain.
So why don’t we hear more about toxoplasmosis? There are a couple reasons. First, it’s a relatively benign disease for most people, comparable to a moderate flu. Second, it’s much less common in its most dangerous form, when transmitted from a pregnant woman to the fetus. This is because it’s only likely to be transmitted if the mother was recently infected herself. Still, it’s estimated that the disease costs as much as eight billion dollars a year in the US; it affects over 1 in 15,000 childbirths in the US and as many as 1 in 500 in parts of the world where the disease is more common.
British science writer Ed Yong gives a good introduction to T. gondii in this post: The parasite is primarily transmitted by cats, through their feces. But cats don’t normally eat cat feces, so path of transmission is often more complicated. In the ideal scenario (for the parasite), rats eat the stuff. Then when a cat preys on an infected rat, the parasite infects the cat, starting the cycle anew. Amazingly, the parasite appears to have evolved to attack the brains of rats, making them easier for cats to catch by suppressing the rats’ fear of cats and motivating them to move around more often so they are easier to spot.
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Still keeping my cats probably to late any ways