Zika? Toxo? Both?!

Say “Zika virus” and most Americans immediately want mosquito abatement. Yet of a disease that can be equally horrific – and like Zika, in about 4 of 5 those afflicted have no symptoms – there is barely a whisper.

This scourge too can masquerade as the flu and/or be sexually transmitted, and can cause babies to be born with shrunken heads. It’s true there’s a likelihood Zika could be an emergency of international concern, but I am not referring to or minimizing it here. The scourge already all over the country and the planet, why have we ignored that at our peril?

Already known to cause macro- or microcephaly (as in Zika-caused shrunken heads), the older condition stems from the cat parasite Toxoplasma gondii. When a person first contracts it, there may be flu-like symptoms – or no symptoms at all, like Zika. Toxo can be especially devastating in already immune-compromised individuals, causing delirium, seizures, pneumonia, retinal inflammation, and/or encephalitis. Those who become ill in acquiring the parasite may have it reactivate, for it can lie dormant for years. It is proving to lurk within us for decades – sometimes forever.

T. gondii lies unconcerned, undisturbed in millions of people. In recent studies it has been shown to make women more outgoing and warm, men more suspicious and morose, drivers more impulsive and thus more likely to take reckless risks, and to make depressed individuals more prone to attempt suicide, more likely to use lethal means, and therefore more likely to succeed. Toxo is implicated in schizophrenia, which has costs into the hundreds of millions of dollars in this country alone; some die from its effects. Possibly, likely, Toxo is responsible for a million deaths annually worldwide – more than malaria, which kills someone every 12 seconds.

Toxo has been found in beluga whales, birds, pigs, sheep and Ohio white-tail deer. Have you perhaps ever eaten food animals without cooking the meat quite enough? The second leading cause of U.S. foodborne-illness death is Toxo. 

Although T. gondii could be said to want to get into a cat, the only place it can achieve sexual reproduction, it is “content” to practice asexual reproduction in dogs, farm animals, people. Does Toxo makes ocean creatures beach themselves? Until we know for sure, we’re taking chances with the lives of the animals which belong here – and our own.

An infected mouse may contain many tissue cysts of T. gondii, and a cat that ingests just one is soon capable of shedding millions of the parasite’s eggs or other tissue cysts in its feces. A new mom’s immune system can protect against E. coli or the flu, but not Toxo, which can result in a fetus being born blind, mentally retarded, or stillborn – the reason pregnant women have long been told to have hubby change the litterbox.

Yet many humans never dream of avoiding cats. Cat lovers have protested we must merely support Trap-Neuter-Release, when there aren’t enough volunteers to watch over the cats already in colonies, and which really means they don’t care if cats re-impose themselves on neighbors. At least Governor Mario Cuomo – seeing that cat populations were not going down even where TNR was practiced – decided that the American Bird Conservancy, Audubon and similar groups were the ones with the proper science: New York won’t be diverting any dog licensing fees to support Felis cattus, the introduced mesopredators, which have been called the ultimate meat-eating machine. In other words, in New York state at least, there will be no further pretense of cats being wildlife, since they aren’t.

Because humans spread rats and cats willy-nilly worldwide, we have likely made Toxo the most common parasite there is. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts Toxo in the five Neglected Parasitic Infections (along with toxocariasis, cysticercosis, trichomoniasis and Chagas disease). We should not be treating unattended cats as cute forlorn kitties that can’t do anything unless people feed them, or as victims to be “helped” from trees (not to mention they’ve been known to scratch the would-be rescuer or to leap to the next tree) – they’re disease vectors!

Meanwhile Chicago blithely encourages no-kill shelters (without saying who’s going to pay for them, and if taxpayers, why?) and a plethora of cat cafes while the hazards are ignored. Before farming them out, so to speak, will these cats be tested for Toxo? Will anyone check the cafes for those sometimes airborne oocysts/tissue cysts, which can live dry for a year and a half? It would be unconscionable for the managers to keep quiet if it’s found, in hopes of getting more ferals adopted – but would they, because the parasite is whispering in their brains to hush up about cats?

Cats used to be viewed with the same scorn and disgust as mice and rats. Americans seem increasingly to be great thinkers and speakers, as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were, no more; perhaps Toxo on the brain explains why we are unable to manage long stretches of thoughtful discourse.

New Zealand has its children trained to quickly report anything with fur and beady eyes (the island country has nothing native with these attributes) so it can be eradicated. From otters off California’s coast to beluga whales which swim the cold and mighty Arctic, too many (and even one is one victim too many) have been found suffering from Toxo’s effects, undoubtedly from infected kitty litter washed away into the sea. If it’s Toxo that’s responsible when those oceangoers like whales and dolphins inexplicably beach themselves, if the cat disease is making these great beasts – which belong in their ecosystems, unlike cats – sicken and die, if it’s making humans stupid, we should be working far harder to eradicate it.

If cats have to perish for us to be great again, so be it.

Maybe there’s a Toxo/Zika link.  If we focus only on the latter and on mosquito abatement we might never know. Besides Governor Cuomo and the American Bird Conservancy, who will do anything about the other just-as-common out-of-control disease vector — cats?


About majaramirez

former assistant instructor in tai chi chu'an; current TreeKeeper (#467); former Master Gardener; member of American Bird Conservancy, Audubon, Fraternal Order of Police, and Mensa; recently retired career cop; wife and mom.
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