Scope of the problem: Toxoplasmosis is caused by infection with the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Acute infections in pregnant women can be transmitted to the fetus and cause severe illness (e.g., mental retardation, blindness, and epilepsy). An estimated 400-4,000 cases of congenital toxoplasmosis occur each year in the United States. Of the 750 deaths attributed to toxoplasmosis each year, 375 (50%) are believed to be caused by eating contaminated meat, making toxoplasmosis the third leading cause of foodborne deaths in this country.
Etiologic factors: Toxoplasma can be transmitted to humans by three principal routes: a) ingestion of raw or inadequately cooked infected meat; b) ingestion of oocysts, an environmentally resistant form of the organism that cats pass in their feces, with exposure of humans occurring through exposure to cat litter or soil (e.g., from gardening or unwashed fruits or vegetables); and c) a newly infected pregnant woman passing the infection to her unborn fetus. RECOMMENDATIONSFOR PREVENTION: Toxoplasma infection can be prevented in large part by a) cooking meat to a safe temperature (i.e., one sufficient to kill Toxoplasma); b) peeling or thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables before eating; c) cleaning cooking surfaces and utensils afterthey have contacted raw meat, poultry, seafood, or unwashed fruits or vegetables; d) pregnant women avoiding changing cat litter or, if no one else is available to change the cat litter, using gloves, then washing hands thoroughly; and e) not feeding raw or undercooked meat to cats and keeping cats inside to prevent acquisition of Toxoplasma by eating infected prey.
Research agenda: Priorities for research were discussed at a national workshop sponsored by CDC in September 1998 and include a) improving estimates of the burden of toxoplasmosis, b) improving diagnostic tests to determine when a person becomes infected with Toxoplasma, and c) determining the applicability of national screening programs.
Conclusion: Many cases of congenital toxoplasmosis can be prevented. Specific measures can be taken by women and their health-care providers to decrease the risk for infection during pregnancy and prevent severe illness in newborn infants.