New research has found that a powerful parasite is responsible for many premature births and birth defects. Scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) determined that Toxoplasma gondii, the cause of toxoplasmosis, can also cause early births and damage to babies' eyes or brains while in utero.
Toxoplasma gondii comes from eating undercooked meat or from contact with infected cat feces. If the parasite is not detected or treated, the infection remains in the mother's system and could be passed to the fetus. Researchers used a new blood test to detect any strain-specific antibodies that distinguish infecting strains from one another. The new test improves upon current ones in that current tests can only determine whether a person ever was infected with a strain of Toxoplasma parasite. The test was applied to blood samples from the years 1981 through 2009. In 183 mother-child pairs used for the study, researchers found that of the 15 types of Toxoplasma gondii strains, there was evidence of both Type II -- a strain prevalent in France -- and non-Type II strains.
Non-Type II parasites were found to be more closely associated with premature birth. Those infants infected by non-Type II strains were more likely to suffer from a severe birth defect than infants infected by Type II strains. Severe eye damage was found in 67% of non-Type II cases -- 59 out of 88 total -- while severe eye damage was found in only 39% of Type II cases -- just 18 out of 46.
The researchers stressed that the link between the strains and the birth defects or premature birth was not conclusive. An infant could have a mild or severe birth defect regardless of the strain.
Toxoplasma gondii infection is often the result of poor practices at home -- either not cooking meat long enough or failing to wash one's hands after handling the cat's surroundings. However, it can also be due to an external cause. You might have been infected after going to a restaurant and eating meat that was not properly cooked. If so, and your child suffered a major birth defect as a result, you might be able to sue the restaurant for negligence.