You don’t want Toxoplasma

You don’t want Toxoplasma. I’ve been asked many times about the risks and the risk factors. There are a lot of wrong assumptions about, and a lot of wrong advice, but today I see that the Food Standards Agency is getting it right.

That article still puts too much emphasis on pregnant women, I think. The risks to the unborn child are very real and very important. But anybody carrying Toxo is at risk and it’s very common. It’s one of the world’s most common parasites. It can infect any warm-blooded vertebrate, including us, including many of our pet species and including many of our food species. But it’s a candidate for the title of ‘World’s least-familiar parasite’. Had you even heard of it? I hadn’t until I started looking for funds to support my PhD on Toxo in sheep.

The levy boards supporting red meat industries in Britain (EBLEX, QMS and HCC) were forward-thinking enough to fund my work. While I was there, Glenn McConkey’s team found a biochemical mechanism which started to explain how Toxo affects human behaviour. As for how it affects your risk of dying if you get HIV, or if you have an organ transplant… well basically, you don’t want Toxoplasma.

Anybody learning to cook pig meat learns to serve it well-done. That advice came about because of Toxo in this kind of meat but when pigs are reared indoors, there’s less risk of Toxo. Sheep meat on the other hand? Well I love a good lamb dinner. But I like it well-done. So does every farmer I know. The levy boards put recipe cards on butchers’ counters and I say that if you like lamb, then buy lamb, cook lamb and eat lamb.

About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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15 Responses to You don’t want Toxoplasma

  1. lowerarchy says:

    Am glad to be vegetarian – although I know this does make eating safe per se.

    • argylesock says:

      It certainly doesn’t. For Toxo, handling or eating raw veg is a risk factor and gardening is so too. Cat ownership isn’t but the oocyts shed in cat poo are v persistent in soil, even traces of soil too small to be noticeable in your mouth.

      I myself was veggie for 4 years and briefly vegan. I respect people’s choices. In fact when my health lets me do any cooking (limited these days) I love catering for all diets including veggie and vegan. But now, as you’ll have noticed, I’m proud to be part of the meat industry and to eat the products. EBLEX Student Seminars are worth attending for the fab food… of course we’re really there for the science!

      • lowerarchy says:

        Cool mate – please explain about ‘when my health lets me do any cooking (limited these days)’
        I didn’t realise, sorry

        • argylesock says:

          I rather like it that you need to ask. My cooking is limited because I have multiple sclerosis. It affects my hands and just about everything else 😦

          Tim Benton (link on the sidebar of this blog) leads the research team in which I’m currently doing some work and it was his idea that I should start a science blog. I hope you agree that my ability to think and write about science hasn’t faded. I blog about MS on LiveJournal but I keep this WordPress blog to the science I love, rather than to science about the thing which loves chewing me to bits. Science on the land is far more interesting, isn’t it?

          • lowerarchy says:

            Sorry I didn’t reply before – just found your response in the SPAM folder!
            Wow mate – thanks for sharing this, because I obviously wouldn’t have ever guessed – although I don’t know enough of both the condition and the level you are affected to gauge whether I should anyway. Although from your description it sounds pretty serious. Am going off to read a bit about it.
            Okay, I’ve just been learning about MS and it makes sobering reading (not that I’ve been drinking but it’s a nice phrase) So we’ve both got auto-immune diseases that can take up to 10 years off our lives – snap sister. We both have flare-ups, although I wouldn’t want to swop. So now does it affect you? If that’s not too big a question 🙂

            • argylesock says:

              You’re welcome to ask but would you mind asking on LiveJournal? Over there my username is sammason and I run a community I’m sorry to learn that you too have autoimmune disease. Which one?

              • lowerarchy says:

                Palindromic Arthritis (funny name for a nasty illness) It’s like rheumatoid arthritis but comes and goes (hence name) It causes inflammation of any synovial joint and flares up and goes away in about 2 days. At first I thought someone had a voodoo doll and was doing nasty things to it 🙂
                It affects my wrists and hands especially, although I’ve had flare-ups in feet, ankles, knees, hips, jaw, shoulders and forearms as well.
                The pain is severe at times hence the painkillers – tramadol up to 400mg per day. I was also given NSAIDs by doc – first naproxen then diclofenac but these have made me ill so have stopped them. Consequently I haven’t slept well for months and for the last couple of weeks I’ve been getting up in the night in pain. I’m somewhat worn out by this and due to broken sleep am having crazy dreams which adds another level of surrealism.
                Okay, am starting to come to my senses now and will see you on LiveJournal x

  2. eqfe says:

    Well done lamb…given a choice between eating it or dying, I’d really have to think long and hard about it. These days,, I don’t eat it that often, because it’s quite expensive here.

    • argylesock says:

      If we were in the same place I’d love to make you a lamb casserole, slowly cooked until the meat falls off the bones. Or maybe you’d like lamb and apricot tagine with couscous. Or a proper scouse, which you probably had when you were over here

      Do you know why sheep meat isn’t eaten more on your side of the Pond? You have a huge range of climate zones but hardly anybody seems to farm sheep;

      • Daniel Digby says:

        Most stores don’t carry it over here, which is strange because when I was a kid and we still had local grocery stores, we used to have lamb all the time. For some reason, none of the major supermarket chains have it. Some day when I’m feeling curious, I’ll have to check out some of the smaller stores in Memphis. They carry chitlins and and an amazing variety off other unappetizing stuff; maybe one of them will carry lamb.

      • eqfe says:

        Long ago around the time that the great plains were stolen from the Native Americans, and the AMerican bison were largely exterminated, rancers started running huge herds of cattle. Begin large operations they had large groops of armed employes, usually called cowboys to tend to their herds and drive them to maket. Sheperds in family size herds of sheep also began to settle one the great plains. But the ranchers spread rumors that sheep carried cattle deseases, and having large groups of armed men at their disposal madaged to push the shepards out. Sheep conotinued to be raised on small farms largely for their wool. Over time, plentiful quantities of beef pushed relatively expense lamb of the butchers shelves. while factory chicken farms produced enormous quantities of cheap meat. Over time the far more expensive lamb could not compete.Growing up with ate leg of lamb at easer, and mayber a few other times a year. I think that a lot of the lamb available in the US today is frozen leg of lamb from New Zealand.

  3. natalief says:

    I have heard of toxoplasmosis – is that the same thing?

    • argylesock says:

      Toxoplasmosis is the disease caused by Toxoplasma gondii. When writing about Toxo with my academic’s head on, I get technical about this but in general conversation it’s fine to be more relaxed.

      Now that this has come up: I define clinical ovine toxoplasmosis as the death of a prenatally exposed lamb, or the acute disease of a sheep after primary infection. In humans, I’d need to ask a medic for the definition but I guess that toxoplasmosis means the symptoms suffered by people who’ve been prenatally exposed (they often die, but not always) and maybe also the acute, but mild, flu-like disease suffered after primary infection. It’s easy to get Toxo by handling soil or by eating undercooked meat. It’s easy not to notice that you’ve got it because it can feel like flu. Otoh if you become immunocompromised and your Toxo recrudesces, you can get really ill. It’s the most common cause of death in AIDS.

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