Expectant mothers need to be aware of pathogens that could endanger their unborn children’s health
By Johanna Hicks | Hopkins County Extension Agent/Family and Consumer Sciences

Aug. 27, 2006 -- While presenting a program for expectant mothers recently, I realized that many of them were not aware of some pathogens that could make them ill and cause harm to their unborn children. Toxoplasmosis, Listeria, and Methyl mercury are three of the most severe, but due to space limitations, I'll only mention two of these today.

Toxoplasmosis is caused by a parasite, usually associated with cat feces and litter boxes. The reason for this is that cats eat small animals or infected meat which then causes the cat to be a carrier of the parasite. A person can get infected by accidental ingestion — gardening, cleaning litter boxes, or touching something that came into contact with cat feces and then forgetting to wash hands, for example.

Symptoms include swollen glands, headache, rash, low-grade fever, muscle pain and stiff neck. Only about 10 percent of infected women show symptoms. Harm to the baby shows up as hearing loss, mental retardation, blindness, brain or eye problems (sometimes several years after birth), or possibly death.

To prevent toxoplasmosis:

  • let others change the litter box
  • wear gloves when gardening
  • cover outdoor sand boxes (to prevent cats from using it as a litter box) - feed only commercial cat food (not raw meat)
  • avoid stray cats
  • avoid drinking water from an unapproved source

There are medications that clear up the infection, but if the parasite has infected the fetus, medication might not help.

Methyl mercury is actually a metal found in nearly all fish, but especially in king mackerel, shark, tile-fish, and swordfish. Over a period of time, build-up can occur in the body. The human body removes it naturally, but if levels are high, this process may take up to a year.

Symptoms include sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, numbness or weakness in legs, impaired vision. Harm to the baby shows up as brain and spinal cord damage, cerebral palsy, seizures or possibly death.

To prevent Methyl mercury:

  • do not eat king mackerel, shark, tile-fish or swordfish
  • limit intake of shrimp, tuna canned in water, salmon, pollock, or catfish to 12 ounces per week
  • due to higher mercury content, limit intake of albacore tuna to 6 ounces per week
  • if source of fish is local and no information about the safety of the water if available, limit intake to 6 ounces per week

For more information on these and other food borne illnesses, go to www.fightbac.org. You'll find a wealth of information!


Those who won't be advised can't be helped.

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