Beluga whale with calf
The parasite Toxoplasma gondii has spread from domestic cats to beluga whales Reuters

A potentially deadly parasite has spread from domestic cats to beluga whales in the Arctic, prompting scientists to issue a public health warning.

Inuit populations who consume whalemeat have been warned the parasite, called Toxoplasma gondii, can be spread when people do not wash their hands after preparing meals.

The bacteria is destroyed by cooking the meat, yet the Food Standards Agency suggests around 350,000 people become infected every year.

Toxoplasma gondii is a hugely successful pathogen capable of infecting virtually all warm-blooded animals. It is very common in humans and serological studies estimate up to one third of the global population has been exposed to the parasite.

General symptoms mimic those of flu and around 10% of people who harbour the parasite have a mild reaction. However, those with weakened immune systems, including those with HIV and AIDS, may be susceptible to serious illness or even death.

Toxoplasma can be spread in a number of ways, including through raw or undercooked meat, by ingesting water, soil or vegetables. It can be passed on during a blood transfusion or an organ transplant and can even spread from mother to foetus, particularly when the bacteria is contracted during pregnancy.

In pregnant women, the parasite can affect heart and brain development, which may lead to miscarriages and stillbirths. In other cases, the infection has been linked to schizophrenia and other bipolar disorders.

Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, Professor Michael Grigg revealed around 14% of beluga whales now carry the infection.

He said: "This is now emerging in the Arctic and there's not much we can do about that. This is the new normal."

Grigg added: "The Inuit's traditional processing and cooking methods should be enough to kill Toxoplasma but vulnerable populations like pregnant women need to be extra vigilant around handling and consuming raw whalemeat."

According to research, the outbreak in the creatures was most probably caused by cat faeces entering waterways and into the sea. There has been a rise in pet cats among the Inuit, while the warmer climate supports the life of Toxoplasma gondii.

Inuit communities have been warned to filter or boil their water, as water supplies may be contaminated.