A cuddly kitten slaps a ball of yarn as it entertains the family. But that furry friend’s busy paws may carry an unwanted single-celled parasite, Toxoplasma gondii [tox-oh-PLAZ-mah GON-dee-eye]. At one time the disease it causes… toxoplasmosis [TOX-oh-plaz-MOE-siss]… was called cat-scratch fever. But now we know there are other ways it’s transmitted.

For example, you accidentally touch your mouth after cleaning Tabby’s litterbox. You’re gardening, and as you wipe the sweat from your brow, bits of contaminated dirt roll into your mouth. You may get it in raw pork, lamb or venison, or from utensils that have touched the raw meat.

Symptoms include muscle aches that last for several weeks and appear to be the flu. However, more than sixty-million people in the United States carry T. gondii with few symptoms. The immune system holds the parasite in line.

But if the infection is acquired for the first time while a woman is pregnant, her baby may suffer serious eye and brain damage.

A recent University of Chicago study revealed that early detection and treatment prevents such tragedies. In France and Austria, for example, education about the disease and tests to detect the parasite are part of routine obstetric care. Taking careful medical histories identifies half of at-risk mothers; blood tests find the rest. Medicines can help, but only if the condition is detected early. The Chicago physicians believe that simple screenings for pregnant women during prenatal visits and screenings for all newborns will help stop the scourge of toxoplasmosis.

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