Toxoplasmosis - Opportunistic Infections
Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by the parasite toxoplasma gondii and is one of the more common opportunistic infections associated with AIDS.
The parasite is commonly found in undercooked or meat, particularly pork, lamb and venison and in certain animals such as cats, dogs and birds. It can also be found in the soil, particularly in areas where there is dog or cat faeces.
It is absolutely minute and you can’t see whether it is on your hands. All you have to do is just put your hand near your mouth and the parasite is in and raring to go. It can even be breathed in through dust created by soil or sand.
And then what does it do? Well, in a healthy person, the immune system kicks in and keeps it from causing any disease. But if you have AIDS, meaning that your CD4+ count is below 200, your immune system is practically disabled and powerless against the toxoplasmosis.
The most common illness caused by toxoplasmosis is encephalitis – an infection of the brain which can lead to coma and death. The first signs will be severe headaches that won’t go away, fever, fits, confusion and perhaps difficulty in seeing, walking or talking. Dizziness and vomiting can also occur.
Despite the severity of the symptoms it’s a tough illness to diagnose. Brain scans such as computerized tomography (CT scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used but the lesions on the brain caused by toxoplasmosis can look like similar markings from other illnesses such as lymphoma.
It may be a case of trial and error and a doctor may often start an AIDS patient on anti toxoplasmosis medication “just in case.” If they get better and a subsequent brain scan shows that the lesions have improved then obviously toxoplasmosis was the culprit.
There is an antibody blood test for toxoplasmosis to see whether the parasite is in your system. However a positive test doesn’t mean that a person has toxoplasmosis encephalitis but rather that they have the antibodies in their system.
Thankfully treatment for toxoplasmosis is usually very successful. Antibiotic drugs such as Bactrim or a combination of medication like pyrimethamine, sulfadiazoine and leucovrin are highly effective.
But as with any medication there is usually a downside. Around 50% of people who take Bactrim or sulfadiazine develop a severe allergic rash and fever. This can sometimes be avoided by introducing the drugs slowly into the system.
It’s important that once a person gets over the infection that they continue taking the medication to prevent it reoccurring. They should also keep taking the anti HIV drugs to boost the immune system, helping it to fight such an infection before it becomes a serious problem.
If possible of course it’s best to avoid the parasite altogether. Anyone with AIDS should make sure that meat is always cooked well and that gloves are worn during gardening and changing cat or dog litter. Washing hands and surfaces after dealing with raw food is vital to prevent cross infection.
It’s even worth considering wearing a mask to prevent the parasite being breathed in through dust. You might silly but you’ll feel an awful lot worse if you develop the infection.