Parasite found in raw meat linked to possible Australian rise in eye disease

An eye disease caused by the most common parasite in the world is under the microscope as researchers warn cases could be on the rise.
New research from Flinders University has revealed one in 149 Australians are impacted by the illness caused by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, which was discovered more than 100 years ago.

Part of the reason for this increase could be attributed to people eating raw or undercooked meat from infected livestock. The parasite is also commonly associated with cats.

One in 149 Australians have retinal scars caused by the Toxoplasma parasite. (Flinders University)

“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,” said Flinders University study author Professor Justine Smith.

The eye’s retina — the part of the eye which generates vision — is most vulnerable to the disease, according to Smith.

“While there is no cure or vaccine, the symptoms of toxoplasmosis vary depending on the age, health and genetics of the infected individual,” she said.

“Many people are asymptomatic, but the most common disease that we see in the clinic is retinal inflammation and scarring known as ocular toxoplasmosis.”

Flinders researchers DNA tested lamb mince from supermarkets to pick up Toxoplasma in more than one-third of purchases.
Flinders researchers DNA-tested lamb mince from supermarkets to pick up toxoplasma in more than one-third of purchases, a 2019 study reveals. (Flinders University)
Cooking meat at a high temperature can kill the parasites which cause eye disease. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The study conducted in WA was the first effort to uncover the rate of ocular toxoplasmosis in Australia, by assessing the retinas of more than 5000 people.

The parasite is most commonly associated with cats but many other animals are infected via soiled environments, including areas where Australian cows are.

The most common route of Toxoplasma infection is by eating undercooked or raw meat.
The most common route of Toxoplasma infection is by eating undercooked or raw meat. (Flinders University)

“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,” said Smith.

Finders University researchers have raised the alarm and are urging people to understand the risks of consuming raw meat.

“We need people to be aware this disease exists, so they can make informed decisions about how they prepare and eat their meet,” Smith said.

“The parasite can be killed easily by cooking the meat to an internal temperature of 66 degrees celsius or by freezing it prior to cooking.”

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