Current Affairs

Are cats increasing the risk of disease in humans?

Experts have called for more research into toxoplasmosis, a disease spread by cats, after figures revealed an estimated 350,000 people become infected every year.

Between one and two in every 10 people are thought to be affected by the disease in some way. This figure has led to calls for extra measures in controlling the disease from advisers.

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The Food Standards Agency (FSA) states that there is a lack of data on the condition, making it difficult to estimate the real significance of the disease. Chief scientist of the FSA Andrew Wadge said: “This thorough and detailed report points out key gaps in our knowledge about this parasite and suggests areas where more research is needed, which will help us in estimating how much infection is due to food and which foods might be the highest risk.

“The report also suggests we look again at our advice to vulnerable groups and ensure that it reflects current scientific knowledge.”

Toxoplasmosis is believed to be asymptomatic in 80 per cent of cases. Those who do show evidence of infection are likely to suffer from flu-like symptoms that won’t need treating. The disease can cause complications in members of society with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV and cancer and can result in babies being born blind or with brain damage, should their mothers be affected during pregnancy.

“The report contains some very important messages regarding the need for good personal hygiene and the need for pregnant women and immuno-compromised groups to be aware of the risks. However, the BVA is concerned [it] could cause significant alarm to cat owners,” the association stated.

Toxoplasma gondii, the aggressor bacteria, can get into the food chain via cat faeces. It can also enter via soil, plants and undercooked meat, among others, and it is this singling out of cats as a cause that has aggrieved veterinarians.

“People have just as much chance of catching toxoplasmosis from raw vegetables than they do of catching it off cats,” remarked the Black Notley Veterinary Surgery in Essex.

p>This opinion is supported by the BVA: “Sources of infection include eating undercooked meat, vegetables that have not been washed properly and contact with cats. It is not known which the greater source of infection is, but anecdotal evidence suggests that meat is likely to be more important than contact with cats. The BVA echoes advice that meat should be prepared and cooked properly.”

Outlining ways to avoid catching the disease from feline sources, both the BVA and the Black Notley Veterinary Surgery recommend wearing gloves when dealing with cat litter; washing hands after handling a cat and ensuring faeces is removed promptly and disposed of in a safe and considerate manner.

Former BVA president and veterinary surgeon Harvey Locke added: “While the facts are true, the headlines [regarding this story] have been quite alarmist and we are very keen to reassure cat owners that the risks can be managed with good basic hygiene and common sense.

“The biggest threat is to pregnant women and those who are immuno-compromised, which we have known for some time. It is useful to re-iterate that they should take extra care but there is no need for people to get rid of their pet cats or choose not to have cats as pets.”

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