Toxoplasmosis, the little known brain parasite that affects 66% of Brazilians.

This is what toxoplasma looks like at a cellular level
This is what toxoplasma looks like at a cellular level

Pregnancy and toxoplasmosis

We’ve all heard that pregnant women should stay away from cats, something in the urine apparently.  What’s in the urine?, toxoplasma, that’s what.  Toxoplasma causes a parasitic disease called toxoplasmosis and should probably be the world’s best known parasite given that it effects about 1/3 of the world’s population. Toxoplasma is present in most warm blooded animals but is most commonly hosted by the cat family and it is from here that most humans contract the parasite. Toxoplasma is also frequently transferred by raw meat, particularly lamb, and pregnant women should avoid these as well.

If pregnant women do contract the parasite it won’t cause any serious problems so most countries avoid the expensive screening process.  What’s most interesting about the parasite and pregnancy is that women with high levels of taxoplasmosis antibodies are more likely to have male babies.  Much more likely.  A Czech research team discovered that the ratio of male babies born (51%) dramatically increased when the mothers were found to host the virus (71%).

Impact of taxoplasmosis on societies

So why haven’t we heard much about the parasite.  The parasite on the whole is fairly harmless unless your immune system is incredibly weak, at least that’s been the thinking until relatively recently.  While the disease may be relatively harmless to our bodies new research suggests it might affect our psychology in more serious ways.  Kevin Lafferty, a biologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has conducted research that seems to prove the parasite’s impact on the personality of the host.  If large portions of populations are hosts, then there is a possible link between toxoplasmosis and the personality/character of a nation.  

Possible effects on the Brazilian national soccer team

One of the notable effects of latent toxoplasmosis is increased risk-taking.  Studies have discovered that those with the latent form of the disease are much more likely to be involved in car accidents.  While risk-taking behaviour isn’t advantageous when driving a car it might go some way to explaining the characteristics that we often associate with Brazilian football at its best.  Players who do things with the football that we haven’t seen before have obviously taken plenty of risks with the ball in the past.  Very few things of greatness were achieved with taking a risk, think Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope against George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle. Ali let the most powerful puncher in the history of the world hit him for 7 rounds, he let him for God’s sake!  High risk can lead to high reward, low risk rarely will.

Comparison to other World Cup Nations

Britain is estimated to have 7% of the population infected, can’t see England winning a World Cup any time soon in spite of their playing population.  In France, the European country with the second highest levels (45%) they won a European Championship and World Cup back to back relatively recently.  So what about the Spanish, ranked no. 1 by FIFA? Best guess currently is 50%!

Now I’m not saying that the parasite leads to victory on the football pitch but when all the other ingredients are there (playing population, coaching etc.) it might just make a difference, the type of difference that separates top level performers.  We all speak about the characteristics of the Germans (organised) as a team, and the Italians (cynical), and Nigeria (defensively naive) etc so maybe, just maybe, these traits are neurological as well as socio-cultural.

But it’s not just me, I swear

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