A thousand people a day are being infected by a dangerous parasite spread by cats, a study has revealed.
Toxoplasma can cause birth defects, blindness and dementia and has been linked with schizophrenia and other psychotic disturbances.
Official figures to be released today show that around 350,000 Britons suffer infections every year. The link with Britain’s most popular pet will shock cat owners.
One per cent of Britain’s eight million cats carries the toxoplasma parasite
The animals are the primary carriers of the parasite because they are the only animals within which it can reproduce.
Humans, though, are most likely to become infected by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite from contaminated meat and vegetables or direct contact with infected cat litter.
Vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems are most at risk. The disease can cause serious damage to babies developing in the womb.
Experts have estimated that one per cent of Britain’s eight million cats carry the parasite. But they have warned that the true extent of the disease has yet to be realised.
They want it to be made a notifiable disease in England and Wales – meaning that medical staff must report the infection on a national database, as is already the case in Scotland.
The Food Standards Agency will publish a ‘risk profile’ later this week looking at Toxoplasma in the food chain.
The FSA’s paper is expected to highlight the unknown scale of Toxoplasma infections.
Although 80 per cent of those infected do not show any symptoms after infection, the remaining 20 per cent – up to 70,000 people a year – can become ill.
Cats are the primary carries of toxoplasma as they are the only animals within which the parasite can reproduce
Richard Holliman, a consultant medical biologist at St George’s Hospital in London, told The Independent: ‘Toxoplasma is more important, or as important, as salmonella and campylobacter, which affect a lot of people.
‘Toxoplasma affects a few people but when it does affect them it can be devastating. A child born with congenital Toxoplasma is damaged for life.’
While cats are the only main host of the pest, the FSA will say that most infections are from eating contaminated food.
Basic studies have shown that around 70 per cent of British sheep have been exposed to the parasite, which is thought to be carried by grass or feed that has come into contact with infected cat faeces.
A study published last week revealed that more than 12 million cats and dogs may be infected with parasites thanks to the wet summer, risking serious health problems for their owners.
The majority of owners fail to protect their pets against parasites, leaving them at risk from pests which can then infest the home. The mild winter and washout summer have led to a proliferation of pests such as ticks, which can lead to Lyme disease in humans.
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