The disease toxoplasmosis is caused by the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii. T. gondii is found in a wide variety of birds and mammals, and human infections are common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 22.5% of the population 12 years and older has been infected with T. gondii; but immunocompetent individuals are typically asymptomatic, however. Domestic cats are the only known definitive hosts for the sexual stages of T. gondii and, thus, are the main reservoirs of infection. Infected cats shed T. gondii oocysts in their feces, and these oocysts typically spread to humans through contact with fecal matter on cats’ bodies, in litter boxes, or in garden beds where outdoor cats defecate.
T. gondii has a complex life cycle that involves multiple hosts. The T. gondii life cycle begins when unsporulated oocysts are shed in the cat’s feces. These oocysts take 1–5 days to sporulate in the environment and become infective. Intermediate hosts in nature include birds and rodents, which become infected after ingesting soil, water, or plant material contaminated with the infective oocysts. Once ingested, the oocysts transform into tachyzoites that localize in the bird or rodent neural and muscle tissue, where they develop into tissue cysts. Cats may become infected after consuming birds and rodents harboring tissue cysts. Cats and other animals may also become infected directly by ingestion of sporulated oocysts in the environment. Interestingly, Toxoplasma infection appears to be able to modify the host’s behavior. Mice infected by Toxoplasma lose their fear of cat pheromones. As a result, they become easier prey for cats, facilitating the transmission of the parasite to the cat definitive host.
Toxoplasma infections in humans are extremely common, but most infected people are asymptomatic or have subclinical symptoms. Some studies suggest that the parasite may be able to influence the personality and psychomotor performance of infected humans, similar to the way it modifies behavior in other mammals. When symptoms do occur, they tend to be mild and similar to those of mononucleosis. However, asymptomatic toxoplasmosis can become problematic in certain situations. Cysts can lodge in a variety of human tissues and lie dormant for years. Reactivation of these quiescent infections can occur in immunocompromised patients following transplantation, cancer therapy, or the development of an immune disorder such as AIDS. In patients with AIDS who have toxoplasmosis, the immune system cannot combat the growth of T. gondii in body tissues; as a result, these cysts can cause encephalitis, retinitis, pneumonitis, cognitive disorders, and seizures that can eventually be fatal.
Toxoplasmosis can also pose a risk during pregnancy because tachyzoites can cross the placenta and cause serious infections in the developing fetus. The extent of fetal damage resulting from toxoplasmosis depends on the severity of maternal disease, the damage to the placenta, the gestational age of the fetus when infected, and the virulence of the organism. Congenital toxoplasmosis often leads to fetal loss or premature birth and can result in damage to the central nervous system, manifesting as mental retardation, deafness, or blindness. Consequently, pregnant women are advised by the CDC to take particular care in preparing meat, gardening, and caring for pet cats. Diagnosis of toxoplasmosis infection during pregnancy is usually achieved by serology including TORCH testing (the “T” in TORCH stands for toxoplasmosis). Diagnosis of congenital infections can also be achieved by detecting T. gondii DNA in amniotic fluid, using molecular methods such as PCR.
In adults, diagnosis of toxoplasmosis can include observation of tissue cysts in tissue specimens. Tissue cysts may be observed in Giemsa- or Wright-stained biopsy specimens, and CT, magnetic resonance imaging, and lumbar puncture can also be used to confirm infection.
Preventing infection is the best first-line defense against toxoplasmosis. Preventive measures include washing hands thoroughly after handling raw meat, soil, or cat litter, and avoiding consumption of vegetables possibly contaminated with cat feces. All meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of 73.9–76.7 °C (165–170 °F).
Most immunocompetent patients do not require clinical intervention for Toxoplasma infections. However, neonates, pregnant women, and immunocompromised patients can be treated with pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine—except during the first trimester of pregnancy, because these drugs can cause birth defects. Spiramycin has been used safely to reduce transmission in pregnant women with primary infection during the first trimester because it does not cross the placenta.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology