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Hunters haul in a beluga whale at Billy's Creek near Paulatuk about a year ago. A University of British Columbia study has recently found evidence some of these whales are carrying toxoplasmosis, a parasite that can be dangerous to pregnant women. - photo courtesy of Diane Ruben

Pregnant women warned against raw beluga prep
Top doc issues warning about parasitic disease

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Monday, July 20, 2015

Pregnant women in the Northwest Territories are being warned not to butcher or prepare raw beluga whale as a precaution against toxoplasmosis, says the territory's top doctor.

The caution comes as a response to a University of British Columbia study published last year reporting scientists are starting to find the parasite that causes the infection in Western Arctic beluga whales.

"If you're pregnant, you should avoid being the person who cuts up the raw meat," said Dr. Andre Corriveau in response to the study. "If it's cooked it would be fine."

Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic disease spread by a protozoa called toxoplasma. The infection can cause blindness and can be fatal to fetuses, as well as people or animals with weak immune systems.

The infection can be passed on from a mother to her unborn baby.

Corriveau said the infection is rare and no cases have been reported in humans in the NWT. Toxoplasma is most frequently found in cat feces, which is why pregnant women are often advised not to change litter boxes.

"It's more common in people who keep cats," Corriveau said.

While pregnant women shouldn't touch or eat raw beluga, the health department is emphasizing the importance of eating country food.

"We know if they stop eating traditional foods there are health impacts to that, too," Corriveau said. "Some protect against heart disease, there are essential nutrients you can't get easily from other foods that are imported."

In a news release, Michael Grigg, a molecular parasitologist and adjunct professor at UBC, said that the parasite was likely moving north due to warming temperatures.

"Ice is a major eco-barrier for pathogens," he stated in the release. "What we're seeing with the big thaw is the liberation of pathogens gaining access to vulnerable new hosts and wreaking havoc."

Rob Gruben Jr. has seen the impacts of a warming climate first-hand. In a Facebook message to News/North, the hunter from Paulatuk said he has noticed whales are often thinner than they were a decade ago. They are also arriving earlier in the year.

"This year was far too early for whales - that's the only thing I noticed," he stated.

"Like almost three weeks early."

Until more data becomes available, Corriveau said the warning to pregnant women is simply a precaution.

"We don't have any public health concerns to any extent," he said.

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