Risk of toxoplasmosis in beluga Rajnish Sharma, Lisa L. Loseto, Sonja K. Ostertag, Matilde Tomaselli, Christina M. Bredtmann, Colleen Crill, Cristina Rodríguez-Pinacho, Dayna Schultz, Dongyun Jung, Kshitiz Shrestha, Prateek Jindal, and Emily J. Jenkins

1. Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite more commonly associated with cats, has been recently reported in belugas in the Eastern Beaufort Sea, raising questions about the significance of this parasite for the health of beluga and people who harvest and consume beluga.

2. As part of an international graduate student class in One Health, we reviewed published scientific information and qualitatively assessed the risks of Toxoplasma gondii for health of beluga in the western North American Arctic.

3. Based on a limited amount of published information, Toxoplasma gondii is currently considered to have a minimal impact on the health of the Eastern Beaufort Sea beluga population.

4. At the moment, the beluga population in the Eastern Beaufort Sea appears to be at moderate risk of exposure to Toxoplasma gondii, but there is no evidence that Toxoplasma gondii is affecting the health of hunter-harvested beluga. Food safety risks to people consuming beluga were not considered in this risk assessment.

In recent years, the microscopic parasite Toxoplasma gondii has increasingly been recognized in Arctic wildlife, including beluga whales in the Eastern Beaufort Sea (EBS), Northwest Territories. Because of their importance in Arctic communities and ecosystems, there is concern about the potential risks of T. gondii to beluga health. This parasite can cause inflammation of the brain and reproductive problems in a wide range of animals.

Based on our review of published information, including papers and abstracts at scientific conferences, we conclude that currently the EBS beluga are at moderate risk of exposure to T. gondii, and at low risk of developing disease associated with toxoplasmosis.

We qualitatively assessed the risks of this parasite for beluga. We used a qualitative approach, which is simpler and somewhat subjective, because there is insufficient information for a more quantitative approach. Because there was so little published information, we widened our search to include beluga populations elsewhere in the world and Arctic marine mammals in general.

Future work could involve monitoring and testing stranded or sick beluga to determine causes of death, and if T. gondii is contributing to mortality. Conducting enhanced testing on the EBS beluga population can help determine risk of exposure to T. gondii for people who harvest and consume beluga.

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