Congenital Toxoplasmosis

This is a rare condition affecting only around 2,000 pregnant women in the UK each year but it can also be very serious as the infection can be passed to your unborn child.

Toxoplasmosis is caused by a parasite which can be found in:

  • Cat poo
  • Raw or undercooked meat
  • Things that have come into contact with raw meat
  • Unpasteurised goats’ milk and cheese

It can be quite difficult to diagnose toxoplasmosis as some women do not suffer from any symptoms and many of the symptoms could be associated with general pregnancy or a common cold. It can also take up to three weeks for the symptoms to show. Symptoms can include:

  • Headaches
  • Aching muscles
  • Swollen lymph nodes in your neck
  • Tiredness
  • General flu-like symptoms

If you are concerned that you may be at risk of this infection, you must ask your midwife or doctor for a blood test to see if you are already immune to it. Some women find that they have previously had the infection and their bodies have created antibodies to protect them.

The results may come back and show that you do not have any immunity to toxoplasmosis. However, this may also mean that you do not have toxoplasmosis at present but you will need to have a blood test every 4-6 weeks until your baby is born to ensure your baby’s safety.

If the results come back positive, you will need a second blood test as it may mean that you are immune or it may also mean that you have an infection. If you do have toxoplasmosis, you will need to take a long course of antibiotics, most likely Spiramycin. This will reduce the risk significantly of your baby coming to harm.

If you are concerned that your baby is infected, your doctor or midwife may recommend an amniocentesis test. A sample of your baby’s blood is taken and tested for the infection. However, the decision to have an amniocentesis is up to you, as they are not 100% accurate and cannot tell you how badly affected your baby is. There is also a risk of miscarriage from this test. You should discuss your options and feelings with your doctor or midwife.

If you are in very late pregnancy and you think that your baby may have toxoplasmosis, then he can be tested after birth and if necessary be treated with antibiotics. If a pregnant woman gets toxoplasmosis in late pregnancy, it is very likely that the symptoms will not pass to your baby.

What will Toxoplasmosis do?

Toxoplasmosis can, unfortunately be very dangerous to an unborn baby. However, it is important to remember that infection is rare and that many cases are found and are treated and babies are also able to be treated after birth.

If you get toxoplasmosis during early pregnancy, it is possible that it will cause miscarriage. If you get infected during your first or second trimester, your baby may suffer from damage to their organs especially their eyes and ears. It can also cause your baby to have brain damage.

A baby that has had toxoplasmosis may be born with very little symptoms although they may suffer from eye, hearing and learning difficulties that are discovered at a later date. Toxoplasmosis can also cause some babies to be stillborn or unfortunately only survive a short while.

How can I stop toxoplasmosis?

By following these precautions, you can help prevent becoming infected with toxoplasmosis.

  • If you visit a farm, stay away from the sheep and do not hold new-born lambs. Always wash your hands regularly at farms and outdoor play centres.
  • Wash your hands before and after handling raw food and cooking utensils that have come into contact with raw food.
  • Wash all fruit/vegetables/salads before eating
  • Ensure you thoroughly cook all food especially frozen or ready-made foods
  • Avoid cured meats such as salami during pregnancy
  • Do not drink unpasteurised milk or eat products that contain unpasteurised milk
  • If you have a cat, make sure the litter tray is emptied regularly and try and get someone else to do it for you. However, if you must empty the tray, make sure you wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly before and afterwards.
  • Wear gloves when gardening in soil or playing with sand. Always wash your hands afterwards.
  • If you think your cat may be infected, you can pay for a test to check.

For more information, or if you think there is a risk that you are infected; talk to your midwife or doctor.

by Jenny, mum to William and James

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