TOXOPLASMOSIS can cause severe damage to an unborn child if a woman catches it for the first time when pregnant. It is important that female sheep farmers, and the wives of sheep farmers, know about this infection. Toxoplasmosis may be caught by accidentally swallowing the organism when handling a lambing ewe, the afterbirth or newly born lamb. There is also the possibility of contracting toxoplasmosis from the contaminated hair or clothes of another person involved in lambing. During pregnancy sensible hygiene precautions can help to reduce the risk of toxoplasmosis. Knowing how to avoid it will help reduce the anxiety that many woman may feel once they know this infection exists and is a risk.
The following measures should be taken during pregnancy:
- Do not handle lambing ewes.
- Do not bring lambs into the house.
- Ensure partners attending lambing ewes observe full hygiene procedures.
- Wash thoroughly (including hair), after handling a lambing ewe.
- Scrub hands and keep fingernails short and clean.
- Wash clothes separately, pregnant women should not handle clothes worn during lambing.
- If it is not possible to clean up thoroughly in the night, then separate rooms are advised.
How toxoplasmosis affects sheep
In order to contract toxoplasmosis, it is necessary to eat the infected organism. In sheep this happens when they eat feed or bedding material contaminated with infected cats faeces. The cat is the definitive host for the parasite – it lives and reproduces in the gut of any member of the cat family and is then shed in the droppings.
Although this usually only occurs for a short time in the cats life, the organism remains capable of passing on the infection for up to 18 months in the right conditions. As the infection is usually caught from hunting rodents and birds, feral and farm cats are likely to be infected more often and for longer, therefore domestic cats should never be fed raw meat.
Sheep who contract toxoplasmosis in pregnancy risk passing the infection on to their lambs. This may be a problem for the farmer as it can be a major cause of abortion in sheep. Infection in sheep in early pregnancy invariably results in fatal death, while infection later in pregnancy typically could cause a live infected lamb to be born along side a dead twin. Non pregnant sheep which become infected develop a life long immunity and are not at risk of aborting lambs.
The toxoplasma infection remains in the muscles in the form of tissue cysts in a sheep which has previously been infected, and the meat from these animals is then a risk to humans if eaten uncooked. A live vaccine, Toxovax, has recently been developed for sheep. Neither the vaccine nor a recently vaccinated sheep should be handled by pregnant women.
Questions Commonly Asked
What if I have to attend the ewes who are lambing
Protective clothing and masks will help to prevent toxoplasmosis from being caught in this way, but there is still a potential risk to health of the unborn baby.
Can I catch this from my husband or child if he/she has the infection?
The infection is not passed between people, with the exception of a pregnant women passing it on to her unborn baby. If one member of the family has contracted the infection, he/she is not a risk to other members of the family.
What about rearing orphan lambs?
For all the reasons given above, it is wise to leave this job to others. If the woman has no alternative, then scrupulous hygiene should be observed when handling the lamb.
What about handling the sheep at other times (e.g. Shearing)
This should not present a risk to toxoplasmosis.
Are pregnant women visiting farms at risk?
There is a potential risk from handling a new lamb. However as the infection is caught from ingesting (eating) the organism, there is no risk of contracting toxoplasmosis from being in a field or pen with lambs. After handling animals it is always essential to wash hands before eating, especially when pregnant.
For more information on toxoplasmosis and how to avoid catching it from other sources, please see The Toxoplasmosis Trust's general fact sheet and that for pregnant women. Our helpline 071 713 0599 is open Monday – Friday 9:30am – 5:30pm to answer specific questions. The Trust also provides support to those who have a problem with this infection.
Chlamydia and Q fever are two other infections which also present major health risk to a pregnant woman, and her unborn child. These infections may also be contracted from sheep, and lambing ewes in particular. For further information on chlamydia and Q fever, contact your GP or local veterinary investigation centre.
Last Modified on: 05-11-2015