An observational study by Ruth Gilbert and colleagues finds that prenatal treatment of congenital toxoplasmosis could substantially reduce the proportion of infected fetuses that develop serious neurological sequelae.
The effectiveness of prenatal treatment to prevent serious neurological sequelae (SNSD) of congenital toxoplasmosis is not known.
Methods and Findings
Congenital toxoplasmosis was prospectively identified by universal prenatal or neonatal screening in 14 European centres and children were followed for a median of 4 years. We evaluated determinants of postnatal death or SNSD defined by one or more of functional neurological abnormalities, severe bilateral visual impairment, or pregnancy termination for confirmed congenital toxoplasmosis. Two-thirds of the cohort received prenatal treatment (189/293; 65%). 23/293 (8%) fetuses developed SNSD of which nine were pregnancy terminations. Prenatal treatment reduced the risk of SNSD. The odds ratio for prenatal treatment, adjusted for gestational age at maternal seroconversion, was 0.24 (95% Bayesian credible intervals 0.07–0.71). This effect was robust to most sensitivity analyses. The number of infected fetuses needed to be treated to prevent one case of SNSD was three (95% Bayesian credible intervals 2–15) after maternal seroconversion at 10 weeks, and 18 (9–75) at 30 weeks of gestation. Pyrimethamine-sulphonamide treatment did not reduce SNSD compared with spiramycin alone (adjusted odds ratio 0.78, 0.21–2.95). The proportion of live-born infants with intracranial lesions detected postnatally who developed SNSD was 31.0% (17.0%–38.1%).
The finding that prenatal treatment reduced the risk of SNSD in infected fetuses should be interpreted with caution because of the low number of SNSD cases and uncertainty about the timing of maternal seroconversion. As these are observational data, policy decisions about screening require further evidence from a randomized trial of prenatal screening and from cost-effectiveness analyses that take into account the incidence and prevalence of maternal infection.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Toxoplasmosis is a very common parasitic infection. People usually become infected with Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, by eating raw or undercooked meat that contains the parasite, but it can also be contracted by drinking unfiltered water or by handling cat litter. Most people with toxoplasmosis never know they have the disease. However, if a pregnant woman becomes infected with T. gondii, she can transmit the parasite to her unborn baby (fetus). Overall, about a quarter of women who catch toxoplasmosis during pregnancy transmit the parasite to their fetus. If transmission occurs early during pregnancy, the resultant “congenital toxoplasmosis” increases the risk of miscarriage and the risk of the baby being born with brain damage, epilepsy, deafness, blindness, or developmental problems (“serious neurological sequelae”). In the worst cases, babies may be born dead or die soon after birth. Congenital toxoplasmosis caught during the final third of pregnancy may not initially cause any health problems but eyesight problems often develop later in life.
Why Was This Study Done?
Clinicians can find out if a woman has been infected with T. gondii during pregnancy by looking for parasite-specific antibodies (proteins made by the immune system that fight infections) in her blood. If the pattern of antibodies suggests a recent infection, the woman can be given spiramycin or pyrimethamine-sulfonamide, antibiotics that are thought to reduce the risk of transmission to the fetus and the severity of toxoplasmosis in infected fetuses. In some countries where toxoplasmosis is particularly common (for example, France), pregnant women are routinely screened for toxoplasmosis and treated with antibiotics if there are signs of recent infection. But is prenatal treatment an effective way to prevent the serious neurological sequelae or postnatal death (SNSD) associated with congenital toxoplasmosis? In this observational study, the researchers examine this question by studying a group of children identified as having congenital toxoplasmosis by prenatal or neonatal screening in six European countries. An observational study measures outcomes in a group of patients without trying to influence those outcomes by providing a specific treatment.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers followed 293 children in whom congenital toxoplasmosis had been identified by prenatal screening (in France, Austria, and Italy) or by neonatal screening (in Denmark, Sweden, and Poland) for an average 4 years. Two-thirds of the children received prenatal treatment for toxoplasmosis and 23 fetuses (8% of the fetuses) developed SNSD; nine of these cases of SNSD were terminated during pregnancy. By comparing the number of cases of SNSD among children who received prenatal treatment with the number among children who did not receive prenatal treatment, the researchers estimate that prenatal treatment reduced the risk of SNSD by three-quarters. They also estimate that to prevent one case of SNSD after maternal infection at 10 weeks of pregnancy, it would be necessary to treat three fetuses with confirmed infection. To prevent one case of SNSD after maternal infection at 30 weeks of pregnancy, 18 fetuses would need to be treated. Finally, the researchers report that the effectiveness of pyrimethamine-sulfonamide and spiramycin (which is less toxic) was similar, and that a third of live-born infants with brain damage that was detected after birth subsequently developed SNSD.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that prenatal treatment of congenital toxoplasmosis could substantially reduce the proportion of infected fetuses that develop SNDS and would be particularly effective in fetuses whose mothers acquired T. gondii during the first third of pregnancy. These findings should be interpreted with caution, however, because of the small number of affected fetuses in the study and because of uncertainty about the timing of maternal infection. Furthermore, these findings only relate to the relatively benign strain of T. gondii that predominates in Europe and North America; further studies are needed to test whether prenatal treatment is effective against the more virulent strains of the parasite that occur in South America. Finally, because this study is an observational study, its findings might reflect differences between the study participants other than whether or not they received prenatal treatment. These findings need to be confirmed in randomized controlled trials of prenatal screening, therefore, before any policy decisions are made about routine prenatal screening and treatment for congenital toxoplasmosis.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000351.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides detailed information about all aspects of toxoplasmosis, including toxoplasmosis in pregnant women (in English and Spanish)
The UK National Health Services Choices website has information for patients about toxoplasmosis and about the risks of toxoplasmosis during pregnancy
KidsHealth, a resource maintained by the Nemours Foundation (a not-for-profit organization for children's health), provides information for parents about toxoplasmosis (in English and Spanish)
Tommy's, a nonprofit organization that funds research on the health of babies, also has information on toxoplasmosis
MedlinePlus provides links to other information on toxoplasmosis (in English and Spanish)
EUROTOXO contains reports generated by a European consensus development project
Uptodate provides information about toxoplasmosis and pregnancy