Risk Beyond Zika

Women of childbearing potential (and their “home team”) should worry about all travel, not only Zika virus endemic zones. Take France, for example. It is a hot zone for toxoplasmosis.

Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic infection due to Toxoplasma gondii (often called “Toxo”). It can also cause fetal malformations, including microcephaly. And now that you have heard a lot about Zika virus, your baby is probably at greater risk from Toxo than from Zika.

Toxo in mothers may cause mild illness or have no symptoms at all, while their babies can suffer a range of changes varying from low IQ scores, visual and hearing defects, to severe brain malformations. Thousands of infants in the U.S. are born with Toxo yearly.

Humans are infected by ingesting Toxo cysts. The cysts are found in two places: cat feces and meat. Since handling kitty litter is already widely known as a pregnancy risk, your diet should receive more attention. Besides, food is a much more common means of transmission than is cat contact.

During pregnancy all foods of animal origin should be free from parasites: cook all meat and poultry well (minimum 145 degrees) and make sure all dairy is pasteurized. Eggs should have a solid yoke. Now you can begin to see why the diet in France is a risk formothers-to-be. Think of steak tartare and salad nicoise, for starters.

In fact, Toxo is a huge problem in France. In the 1960s, 84% of women tested positive for toxoplasmosis (indicating infection anytime in their life), but the latest data is still high. A national program to prevent congenital toxoplasmosis has existed in France since 1978. Since 1992, susceptible pregnant women have been tested monthly until delivery. Treatment is available.

I dedicated an entire chapter in No Germs Allowed! to pregnancy, including a more in-depth discussion of Toxo.

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