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Health Highlights: June 8, 2015

Cat Parasite May Be Linked to Mental Disorders in People: Report 6th Person Dies From MERS in South Korea

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Cat Parasite May Be Linked to Mental Disorders in People: Report

Could a common cat parasite put people with a weakened immune system at risk for schizophrenia and other types of mental illness?

CBS News reports that new research suggests such a possible link, but doesn't prove a cause-and-effect connection.

More than 60 million people in the United States have the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, but most never experience any symptoms. But in people with a weakened immune system, T. gondii can cause an illness called toxoplasmosis and potentially lead to miscarriages and fetal problems in pregnant women, long-lasting flu-like illness, blindness and even death, CBS News reported.

Previous research had linked T. gondii with schiziophrenia and bipolar disorder, and two recent studies provide further possible evidence of a connection between the parasite and mental illness, the news network said.

In a paper published in the journal Schizophrenia Research, investigators analyzed three previous studies and found that exposure to cats during childhood may be a risk factor for mental disorders late in life, CBS News reported.

"Cat ownership in childhood has now been reported in three studies to be significantly more common in families in which the child is later diagnosed with schizophrenia or another serious mental illness," E. Fuller Torrey, of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, and Dr. Robert Yolken, of Stanley Laboratory of Developmental Neurovirology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a news release.

In a second paper, researchers analyzed 50 published studies and found a potential link between T. gondii and mental disorders. They saw that people infected with the parasite had a nearly two times increased risk of developing schizophrenia. The researchers also found a possible association between T. gondii and addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorders, CBS News reported.

"In schizophrenia, the evidence of an association with T. gondii is overwhelming," A.L. Sutterland, who's with the Department of Psychiatry at the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam, Holland, and colleagues said in a press release, CBS News reported. "These findings may give further clues about how T. gondii infection can possibly [alter] the risk of specific psychiatric disorders."

Their study was published in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.

"Children can be protected by keeping their cat exclusively indoors and always covering the sandbox when not in use," Torrey told CBS News in an email.

Change your cat's litter box daily and avoid feeding cats raw or undercooked meat, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises. When changing the litter box, it's best to wear disposable gloves and wash hands thoroughly with soap and water afterwards. Pregnant women should not clean litter boxes.


Sixth MERS Death in South Korea

A sixth person in South Korea has died from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus, and officials have increased efforts to halt the spread of the virus that has infected 87 people in the country since last month.

The sixth victim is an 80-year-old man who tested positive for MERS last week and died Monday, according to the Health Ministry, the Associated Press reported.

More than 2,000 people are isolated in their homes or state-run facilities after having contact with infected people, and about 1,870 schools are closed. The MERS outbreak in South Korea is the largest outside the Middle East.

There is no reason to believe that MERS will spread significantly further in South Korea, Deputy Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan said at a news conference Sunday, the AP reported.

"So far, all the MERS cases have been hospital-associated, and there has been no case of an infection in other social settings. We think we have a chance at putting the outbreak under total control," Choi said.

There is no evidence in South Korea of "sustained transmission in the community," according to the U.N. health agency.

There is no vaccine for MERS, which experts say is spread through close contact with infected people and not through the air.

South Korea's government plans to increase its monitoring of hundreds of potentially infected but undiagnosed people quarantined in their homes. Measures include tracking their whereabouts through their cellphone signals, the AP reported.

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