KUALA LUMPUR - Is a certain cat parasite driving people to commit suicide?
A recently published international report has linked women infected with the cat parasite Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii ) with a higher risk of suicide attempts.
A new Universiti Malaya study has also shed some light on the correlation.
Parasitologist Assoc Prof Dr Veeranoot Nissapatorn said that out of 226 mentally-ill patients screened for T. gondii, 76 or 33.6 per cent of those with schizophrenia were infected.
"This figure is quite high," said Dr Veeranoot, who carried out the study with University Malaya Medical Centre consultant psychiatrist Assoc Prof Jesjeet Singh Gill between 2008 and 2010.
Recently, the Archives of General Psychiatry 2012 reported that out of 45,788 Danish women tracked down through medical records, those infected with T. gondii, a parasite found in cat faeces, had an increased risk of self-directed violence and suicide.
The disease called toxoplasmosis is treatable and preventable.
Cats are the main hosts of T. gondii, but the parasite can also be found in humans and other warm-blooded animals.
There are often flu-like symptoms in the early stages of toxoplasmosis. Researchers found a predictive link between the infection and suicide attempts later in life.
On whether the parasite had any influence on schizophrenic conditions in the local study, Dr Veeranoot said it could not be determined yet as the study was still at an early stage.
Dr Veeranoot said that blood screened from 226 patients showed the infection among those with bipolar disorder and major depression was extremely low 0.13 per cent and 0.18 per cent respectively while there was no infection found in cases of anxiety and organic brain syndrome.
Dr Jesjeet said "there is growing evidence that the infection is close-ly related to schizophrenia" and studies had shown that it might worsen the symptoms of the mental illness.
"For this reason, screening may be beneficial," he said, adding that such screenings were already available to pregnant women and those less capable of battling infections because their immune response was not functioning properly.
He said those with mental health problems, particularly schizophrenia, might have higher rates of toxoplasma infection compared to the general population because if their mental condition was untreated, they tend to have poor hygiene and nutrition and could develop infections.
UM Parasitology Department head Prof Dr Rohela Mahmud said the parasite concentrated mostly in the brain and eye and hence might interfere with brain functions.
She said treatment for the infection and vaccination of cats were available, adding that cats should be given cooked food instead of being allowed to eat mice as they, too, might be infected with the parasite.
She said people should also ensure they washed their hands after touching cats.