University studies have found the public remains largely unaware that undercooked meat may harbour Toxoplasma gondii - a parasite which most commonly causes disease in the eye. In fact, one in 150 Australians have retinal scars caused by the Toxoplasma parasite, according to researchers.
There is no vaccine against Toxoplasma, nor are antibiotics available to rid the body of the parasite, and so Professor Justine Smith from Adelaide's Flinders University is turning her attention to educating the public on the risks of eating undercooked meat.
In a previous study by Professor Smith, lamb mince was purchased from a supermarket over a six-month period and studied with a laboratory test that detects the genetic material of Toxoplasma. This testing detected Toxoplasma in four of every 10 lamb mince purchases.
Toxoplasma is killed by cooking meat to an internal temperature of 66°C, equivalent to "medium" level, before eating. However, many Australians prefer to eat some cuts of meat raw or undercooked.
Toxoplasma is more likely and more severe in certain groups of people including infants, the elderly, and people with a compromised immune system. With the condition putting people at risk of further attacks of toxoplasmosis that can progressively damage the retina and lead to vision loss, experts are calling for increased awareness of the risks of not preparing and cooking meat correctly.
More closely associated with cats, Toxoplasma is a parasite that causes the infectious disease known as toxoplasmosis. Many animals around the world are infected, generally contracting the disease in environments soiled by infected cats or by consuming other infected animals.
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For humans, while domestic cat faeces can be a carrier, the most common route of infection is by eating undercooked or raw meat sourced from infected livestock.
"Considering Australia's substantial population of feral cats that are known to be infected, alongside high levels of farming and diets rich in meat, it's imperative we understand the prevalence of the disease across the country," Professor Smith said.
"While there is no cure or vaccine, the symptoms of toxoplasmosis vary depending on the age, health and genetics of the infected individual. Many people are asymptomatic, but the most common disease that we see in the clinic is retinal inflammation and scarring known as ocular toxoplasmosis.
"Studies around the world show that 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the global population is infected with Toxoplasma, but despite knowing that, what we didn't know was how common the related eye disease was."
The message is clear, according to Professor Smith - it's now becoming more common to prepare meat in and out of restaurants to be purposefully undercooked or raw, then the likelihood of people becoming infected with Toxoplasma increases.
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