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New research into Congenital Toxoplasmosis endorses UK health guidance for pregnant women

12 October 2010

A European study carried out by researchers at the UCL Institute of Child Health (ICH), has provided valuable evidence to suggest that antibiotic treatment for Congenital Toxoplasmosis in early pregnancy may reduce the risk of infection by  up to three quarters. These were the findings of an observational study published in this week’s PLoS Medicine.
As no screening programme is available for women in the UK, pregnant women are reminded of the risks of becoming infected.

Congenital Toxoplasmosis is a rare but potentially devastating disease, affecting around 2 in 100,000 live births in the UK each year the research shows for the first time that prenatal screening and antibiotic treatment for the infection has a far higher success rate than postnatal treatment of the affected baby.

The infection is caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma Gondii. This parasite can be found in:
  • undercooked or raw meat
  • raw cured meat, such as salami or parma ham
  • unpasteurized goats’ milk
  • cat faeces
  • soil or cat litter contaminated with infected cat faeces

If a pregnant woman becomes infected with T. Gondii, she can transmit the parasite to her unborn baby.  Overall, about a quarter of women who catch Toxoplasmosis during pregnancy transmit the parasite to the foetus. If transmission occurs early during pregnancy, the resultant foetal infection increases the risk of  neurological complications to the unborn baby, such as brain damage, epilepsy, deafness, blindness, or developmental problems. It has also been identified as a risk factor for miscarriage and even death in early infancy.

Ruth Gilbert, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at the ICH and lead author of the study says,   “We observed 293 cases from across six European countries.  By comparing the number of children who had serious neurological complications who received prenatal treatment with the number among children who did not receive prenatal treatment, we estimated that prenatal treatment of CT reduced the risk by three quarters.”

“We also found that the effectiveness of the antibiotics used, pyrimethamine-sulfonamide and the less toxic spiramycin, was similar.”

In other European countries such as France, where Congenital Toxoplasmosis is more prevalent, pregnant women are screened prenatally for the infection and if necessary treated with antibiotics to fight the infection.

Prof Gilbert adds, “Whether these benefits of treatment would translate into an effective prenatal screening programme needs to be determined by a randomised controlled trial of prenatal screening”

More information on antenatal care.
Link to the paper (live when published).

Notes to editors

Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust is the country’s leading centre for treating sick children, with the widest range of specialists under one roof.

With the UCL Institute of Child Health, we are the largest centre for paediatric research outside the US and play a key role in training children’s health specialists for the future.

Our charity needs to raise £50 million every year to help rebuild and refurbish Great Ormond Street Hospital, buy vital equipment and fund pioneering research. With your help we provide world class care to our very ill children and their families.