This information has been prepared by Dr. Susan Barefoot, Professor Emerita & Extension Program Team Leader Food Safety & Nutrition, Clemson University and Adair Hoover, Program Assistant, Food Safety and Preservation, Clemson University. HGIC 02/13.
A single-celled protozoan parasite called Toxoplasma gondii causes the disease known as toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis is the 2nd leading cause of death from foodborne illness in the United States. More than 60 million men, women, and children in the US carry Toxoplasma. Most carriers of this parasite have a healthy immune system that keeps them illness free. For pregnant women and individuals with compromised immune systems, a Toxoplasma infection can cause serious health problems. In the US, Toxoplasma costs $2,900 million annually, causes 87,000 foodborne illnesses, 4,400 hospitalizations, and 327 deaths.
In the United States, 22.5% of the population 12 years and older are estimated to have been infected with Toxoplasma. Up to 95% of some populations in the tropics have been infected. The protozoan infects most species of warm-blooded animals, including humans. Domestic animals become infected by consuming contaminated food or water. Humans can become infected by:
Practice safe food preparation by cooking food to safe temperatures. A food thermometer should be used to measure the internal temperature of cooked meat. Do not sample meat until it is thoroughly cooked. USDA recommends the following temperatures for meat preparation:
Freezing meats for several days at sub-zero (0°F) temperatures before cooking will greatly reduce the chance of infection.
Don’t drink raw goats milk because infected goats may shed the parasite in milk.
Peel or wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating.
Wash cutting boards, dishes, counters, utensils, and hands with hot soapy water after contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood, or unwashed fruits or vegetables.
Avoid drinking untreated drinking water.
Wear gloves when gardening and during any contact with soil or sand because it might be contaminated with cat feces that contains Toxoplasma. Wash hands with soap and warm water after gardening or contact with soil or sand.
Teach children the importance of washing hands to prevent infection.
Keep outdoor sandboxes covered.
Feed cats only canned or dried commercial food or well-cooked table food, not raw or undercooked meats.
Change the litter box daily if you own a cat. The toxoplasma parasite does not become infectious until 1 to 5 days after it is shed in a cat’s feces. For people who are pregnant or immunocompromised, it is safe to keep a pet cat as long as these safety precautions are followed:
Most healthy, non-pregnant people recover from toxoplasmosis without treatment. Ill persons can be treated with a combination of drugs (pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine, plus folic acid). Pregnant women, newborns, and infants can be treated, although the parasite is not eliminated completely. The parasites can remain within tissue cells in a less active phase. Persons with ocular toxoplasmosis are sometimes prescribed medicine by their ophthalmologist to treat active disease. Medication may be recommended depending on the size of the eye lesion and the location and characteristics of the lesion (acute active, versus chronic non-progressing). Persons with compromised immune systems need to be treated until their condition improves. For AIDS patients, it may be necessary to continue medication for the rest of their lives or for as long as they are immunosuppressed.
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This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.