Deadly cat parasite attacks beluga whales, humans may be next, warn scientists


A team of researchers from the University of British Columbia has recently released a health warning regarding the discovery of a parasite that normally affects cats, in Arctic Beluga whales.

The presence of the parasite in these whales may potentially be lethal for communities in the region who depend on Beluga whales as a source of food. The parasite, called Toxoplasma gondii, is also one of the leading causes of blindness in humans. Moreover, scientists believe that the presence of the parasite in the arctic is another side effect of global warming.

"Ice is a major eco-barrier for pathogens," says US National Institutes of Health molecular parasitologist Michael Grigg. "What we're seeing with the big thaw is the liberation of pathogens gaining access to vulnerable new hosts and wreaking havoc."

The researchers believe that the Toxoplasma parasites reached the arctic due to cat feces finding its way into the oceans further south. From southern waters, the parasites may have travelled up north due to the "big thaw" that is currently affecting the arctic regions. The thawing of arctic ice is currently causing changes in the flow of water between the northern and southern oceans.

"Belugas are not only an integral part of Inuit culture and folklore, but also a major staple of the traditional diet. Hunters and community members are very concerned about food safety and security," says B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands' Animal Health Centre veterinary pathologist Stephen Raverty.

Toxoplasma is a very common parasite and scientists estimate that around a third of the total human population of the world are affected by the parasite. Aside from being one of the major causes of blindness, Toxoplasma can also cause the deaths of fetuses in pregnant women. Moreover, individuals with compromised immune systems can also die from Toxoplasma.

Toxoplasma is commonly spread through food and water contaminated by cat feces. While cooking food thoroughly can often kill the parasites, there is still considerable danger for pregnant women and people who have weakened immune systems.

"The Inuit's traditional processing and cooking methods should be enough to kill Toxoplasma, but vulnerable populations like pregnant women need to be extra vigilant around handling and consuming raw whale meat," says Grigg.

Before the onset of global warming, arctic ice served as an effective ecological hurdle for pathogens usually found in warmer areas. With the melting the artic ice sheets, there is a growing risk of pathogens from the south reaching the arctic regions.

The scientists who conducted the study, announced their findings Feb. 13 at the yearly meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

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