Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic disease caused by the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii. The parasite infects most genera of warm-blooded animals, including humans, but the primary host is the felid (cat) family. Animals are infected by eating infected meat, by ingestion of feces of a cat that has itself recently been infected, or by transmission from mother to fetus. Although cats are often blamed for spreading toxoplasmosis, contact with raw meat is a more significant source of human infections in many countries, and fecal contamination of hands is a greater risk factor.
Up to one third of the world's human population is estimated to carry a Toxoplasma infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that overall seroprevalence in the United States as determined with specimens collected by the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1999 and 2004 was found to be 10.8%, with seroprevalence among women of childbearing age (15 to 44 years) of 11%.
During the first few weeks, the infection typically causes a mild flu-like illness or no illness. After the first few weeks of infection have passed, the parasite rarely causes any symptoms in otherwise healthy adults. However, people with a weakened immune system, such as those infected with advanced HIV disease or those who are pregnant, may become seriously ill, and it can occasionally be fatal. The parasite can cause encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and neurologic diseases and can affect the heart, liver, inner ears and eyes