Toxoplasma gondii found in Arctic Ocean belugas after a study by the University of British Columbia detected whales carrying the parasite. Found in cat feces, Toxoplasma gondi is responsible for toxoplasmosis which can cause blindness in humans and is often fatal to unborn fetuses or those with a weak immune system. Despite this, it is estimated that more than 60 million Americans carry the parasite without displaying symptoms since a healthy immune system will prevent illness. Because the potential for infectious blindness is high and toxoplasmosis is usually caught by those unaware of contamination to meat or cooking utensils, a warning has been issued Inuit people living in the Arctic region who frequently consume beluga whale meat. Researchers are not entirely sure how the parasite managed to reach the Arctic, but feel that the ongoing Arctic Thaw may be to blame.
Although Toxoplasma gondii cannot be picked up through unbroken skin, because it is so easy to be infected without realizing, the chances for transmission are high. Symptoms of toxoplasmosis include flu-like symptoms, such as swollen lymph nodes and muscle aches lasting more than a month. In extreme cases bright lights may cause eye pain, and blurred or faded vision is common. Once the infection reaches this stage even a healthy immune system cannot be counted on to prevent damage to eyes or brain. Redness of the eye, over production of tears, and even lesions of the eye may also present, but there are medications to fight the infection available if symptoms progress to dangerous levels. The only way to be certain of a toxoplasmosis infection is blood tests, and once it is confirmed doctors can be consulted to decide whether or not treatment is needed. Often the symptoms will disappear in a few weeks to a few months and no treatment is needed, unless the infected individual is pregnant or has a compromised immune system. Toxoplasma gondii found in Arctic belugas has raised many questions, but it is the same parasite and disease, and as such precautions and treatment remain the same for all those endangered or afflicted.
Steps are being taken to keep those who may be infected to a minimum, but the real question now is how the Toxoplasma gondii parasite was able to travel to the frozen north for the first time. Researchers at UBC theorize that the ongoing thaw of the Arctic ice sheets may be a contributing factor, since the parasite requires a minimum temperature to survive. Ice is often an obstacle that spores and other carriers of disease, and now that there is less of it, a wider area of the world is susceptible to the parasite than ever before. Often called the sentinels of change, the belugas who were shown to carry the parasite are cited as the beginning in a major shift in environmental boundaries, as well as the behavior of animals in affected environments. A change in diet is suspected for whales infected with Toxoplasma gondii, indicative of changes within the food chain, even if all the links are not apparent at this time.
By Daniel O’Brien