The University of Salford’s Professor Geoff Hide and his colleague Professor Zhao-Rong Lun, of Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou, looked at all studies of Toxoplasma gondii incidence in pregnant Chinese women between 1990 and 2010, comprising thousands of women, and discovered that around 10% were infected.
In contrast, 20-60% of women in continental Europe were found to have the parasite which is transmitted by cats and in undercooked meat.
The researchers put this difference down to the way in which food is cooked in the two regions since raw meat (such as smoked ham) is far more commonly eaten in the West. In the US and UK, infection rates are also higher, at around 20%.
Toxoplasma gondii is generally harmless but with large numbers of women infected, some experience miscarriage or give birth to children with physical defects. Some studies have also linked it to schizophrenia.
The findings represent a first because most of the Chinese studies were not translated into western languages – a barrier Professors Hide and Lun were able to work together to overcome.
“These findings represent a first look at regional differences in the distribution of this parasite,” Professor Hide said. “Our theory is that, especially in continental Europe, women are eating much more raw meat than in China.
“Although the risk to each woman is low, with infection rates of up to 60% the study certainly reinforces existing advice about avoiding cat litter and raw meat products.”
‘Toxoplasma gondii infection in pregnant women in China’ was published in the journal Parasitology.