Toxoplasma gondii is a single-celled parasite that could infect humans and cause serious and severe birth defects and mental retardation. Toxoplasmosis resides in the brains of nearly one-third of people worldwide. It has been gaining the attention of researchers who are trying to solve the mystery associated with this parasitic infection.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has considered toxoplasmosis to be a neglected parasitic infection and is currently taking measures to create awareness among physicians and public, to understand the infection better by collecting recorded data and to design efficient diagnostic methods and treatment strategies.
Many parasites like the gut bacteria inside our body are considered good because they aid in digestion. However, some microorganisms colonizing in our brain have the potential to manipulate our behavior and mind.
Toxoplasma gondii until recently was overlooked, and many are unaware of the infection. The oocysts or feces-borne parasites make its home in cat feces. It is then passed on through ingestion to other animals. When humans consume the uncooked or improperly cooked infected animal tissue, they can get infected.
It was found that humans get infected by either inhaling the oocysts or even by drinking contaminated water. This indicates that owners of infected cats are at a much higher risk of toxoplasmosis.
In the past, toxoplasmosis was responsible for weakening the immune system and causeing flu-like symptoms, including muscle pain. However, recent research suggests that this single-celled organism hold the potential to cause severe health conditions.
Last year, scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) reported that Toxoplasma Gondii was strongly associated with severe birth defects and mental retardation. The infection is passed on from pregnant women to their unborn child. The parasitic infection called NE II strains have a huge impact leading to miscarriage and deafness as well.
With this discovery, steps are being taken to include immunological screening for Toxoplasma Gondii parasite among pregnant women in the U.S., where this screening is rarely practiced.
Ten years ago, researchers at Stanley Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland had observed that children born to mothers infected by the parasite were at an increased risk of being schizophrenics. Later several studies observed that patients with deteriorated mental health characterized by depression and an aversion towards life, had been severely affected by the parasite. Increased immune activity has been suggested to disrupt the neurotransmitters thereby causing depression. Scientists wonder if the parasites are the culprits in influencing the patients to commit suicide.
Further studies are being conducted at various research centers to identify the role of the parasites in altering the behavior of patients.
Earlier this year, experts from the University of South Florida had identified a group of proteins, AP2 factors, that were found to be the deciding factor for the parasite to either rapidly develop and damage the host tissue or be in a dormant stage without increasing the immune activity. This discovery could help in developing drugs for the chronic cases of the infection, for which there are currently no drugs or vaccines available.
According to CDC, more than 60 million people are estimated to be affected by the parasite in the U.S. Toxoplasmosis is one of the leading causes of death from food-borne illness. With cats becoming more popular pets among Americans, the parasite oocysts passed through the cat feaces is displaying an increase in the contamination of the environment, and posing health hazards for people.
Written by: Janet Grace Ortigas