Toxoplasma parasites in your water?

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First of all, you likely wondering what Toxoplasma is. That's just a question, being that the prefix "toxo" does nothing but sound dangerous. But Parasites in my water too? Enough is enough.

Parasites may be present in food or in water and can cause disease. Ranging in size from tiny, single-celled organisms to worms visible to the naked eye, parasites are more and more frequently being identified as causes of foodborne illness in the United States. The illnesses they can cause range from mild discomfort to debilitating illness and possibly death.

What are parasites? Parasites are organisms that derive nourishment and protection from other living organisms known as hosts. They may be transmitted from animals to humans, from humans to humans, or from humans to animals. Several parasites have emerged as significant causes of foodborne and waterborne diseases. These organisms live and reproduce within the tissues and organs of infected human and animal hosts, and are often excreted in feces.

How are they transmitted? They may be transmitted from host to host through consumption of contaminated food and water, or by putting anything into your mouth that has touched the stool (feces) of an infected person or animal. How do they vary? Parasites are of different types and range in size from tiny, single-celled, microscopic organisms (protozoa) to larger, multi-cellular worms (helminths) that may be seen without a microscope.

So now you know what Toxoplasma basically is...a common parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. What are some other common parasites? Some common parasites are Giardia duodenalis, Cryptosporidium parvum, Cyclospora cayetanensis, Trichinella spiralis, Taenia saginata (beef tapeworm), and Taenia solium (pork tapeworm).

As for Toxoplasma, the cause of the disease, toxoplasmosis (TOX-o-plaz-MO-sis), is a single-celled, microscopic parasite found throughout the world. It is interesting to note that these organisms can only carry out their reproductive cycle within members of the cat family. In this parasite-host relationship, the cat is the definitive host. The infective stage (oocyst) develops in the gut of the cat. The oocysts are then shed into the environment with cat feces.

How do you get infected with toxoplasmosis? Infection occurs when tissue cysts in raw or undercooked meat from an infected animal are eaten. Infection can also occur by ingestion of food or water contaminated with Toxoplasma eggs from the feces of infected animals. Another, less common method of infection is eating eggs that are from dirt in sandboxes or yards in which cats have defecated. If a pregnant woman becomes infected, the parasite can be transmitted to her developing fetus and cause severe illness.

How is toxoplasmosis maintained in nature? Members of the cat family are infected by eating cysts of Toxoplasma parasites present in the flesh of infected animals. Cats can also become infected by ingesting Toxoplasma eggs from contaminated food or water. The parasite completes its life cycle in the cat, which produces millions of Toxoplasma eggs in its stool. Once outside the cat, the eggs mature and become infectious for people and other animals.

Who is at risk of acquiring toxoplasmosis? People who are exposed to the parasite include gardeners, veterinarians, butchers, meat cutters, and cat owners. Persons eating raw or undercooked meat are also at risk.

How can you prevent an infection? Infection can be prevented by:

  • Cooking meat to a safe temperature.
  • Peeling or thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables before eating.
  • Wearing gloves when you garden or do anything outdoors that involves handling soil; cats, who may pass the parasite in their feces, often use gardens and sandboxes as litter boxes.
  • Washing your hands well with soap and warm water after outdoor activities, especially before you eat or prepare any food.
  • Pregnant women or immunocompromised individuals avoiding changing cat litter or, if no one else is available to change the cat litter, clean the litter daily using gloves, then wash hands thoroughly.
  • Not feeding raw or undercooked meat to cats and keeping cats inside to prevent the acquisition of Toxoplasma by eating infected prey.

At the end of the day, parasites are just another creature that you and I have to learn to live with. Sure, they are in and around our waters where our animals and maybe children play. The best we can do is keep our children and pets safe by being cautious and by treating the water that enters into our homes with the most aggressive and advanced water treatment methods available to our budgets.

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