Millions likely infected with brain-damaging parasite that comes from cats

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More than 60 million people in the U.S. could be carrying an untreatable parasite that comes from cats and from undercooked meat.

That’s according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says most people who have it are unaware they are infected with Toxoplasma gondii.

For some people, toxoplasmosis is a serious condition.

Babies born to infected women, and people with weakened immune systems, are at greatest risk for severe symptoms of toxoplasmosis.

At its worst, toxoplasmosis can cause damage to the brain, eyes or other organs, according to the CDC. Symptoms can include flu-like swollen glands, muscle aches and pains, and some vision problems.

University of Montana Microbiology Professor Bill Granath tells KPAX-TV that some studies show the parasite can also cause personality changes that correlate with mental health issues such as schizophrenia, autism and Alzheimer’s disease, and that some studies have also found infected women were more prone to suicide.

“Various studies also correlate toxoplasmosis with suicide in veterinarians – and while nothing says definitively that the phenomenon is caused by the parasite – some believe there is a link,” the KPAX report said.

Cats are where Toxoplasma multiplies. Most people are also unaware when their cat gets infected with Toxoplasma.

Toxoplasma is spread in the feces of a cat infected with it, but cats rarely have symptoms of infection. Cats get it by eating infected rodents, which reportedly lose their fear of cats as a side-effect of their own Toxoplasma infection. When the rodents approach the cat, they are eaten and thus infect the cat.

The CDC recommends cat owners change their litter box daily, since Toxoplasma does not become infectious until 1 to 5 days after it is shed in a cat’s feces; avoid handling or adopting stray cats; keep cats indoors; keep outdoor sandboxes covered and avoid feeding raw or undercooked meats to cats.

Toxoplasma is also found in uncooked and undercooked meat, poultry and shellfish. It can be spread by eating those foods, and by contact with utensils used to handle and prepare them.

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