Virus In Imported Meat Might Alter Nation's Behavior, Warns PM - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Virus In Imported Meat Might Alter Nation’s Behavior, Warns PM

Virus In Imported Meat Might Alter Nation’s Behavior, Warns PM

Published August 15, 2014

Says Toxoplasma Infection 'Might Be Changing The Behavior Of Whole Nations'

Haukur Már Helgason
Photos by
Ministry / HMH

Says Toxoplasma Infection 'Might Be Changing The Behavior Of Whole Nations'

According to Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, a virus that may change people’s behavioral patterns is common among most of the world’s populations, except Iceland, Norway, and, ‘remarkably’, the UK. Sigmundur Davíð admits that this does indeed sound like science fiction, adding ‘but …’, seemingly to imply that reality may prove stranger than fiction. He indicated that this should be kept in mind when shaping agricultural policy, emphasizing as ‘extremely important’ that ‘we remain free of all sorts of infections which are, unfortunately, all to common in very many places’.

‘Might Be Changing The Behavior Of Whole Nations’

‘Because this is such an interesting topic, maybe I will get one more minute to cover it, because it is extremely important that we, precisely, protect the wholesomeness of Icelandic products, that we don’t use additives, steroids and hormones and such in the production of Icelandic meat,’ Sigmundur Davíð pleaded in a live interview on radio-station Bylgjan on Thursday. Questions in the interview covered NATO, interest-rate policies and finally, the topic at hand: agriculture and meat-imports. Sigmundur Davíð spoke the economic incentives to keep tolling foreign agricultural products. He spoke of the opportunities ahead, when food prices are predicted to rise. Finally he pleaded, as quoted above, for an extra minute on air, to say a few words of a different nature.

“For example, there is a virus that causes people’s behavior to change. If they eat, for instance, meat in other countries, that has not been cooked particularly well, then people are at risk of ingesting this infection. And it can lead to changes in behavioral patterns.”

The minute granted, Sigmundur went on: ‘Another thing, no less important, is that we remain free of all sorts of infections which are, unfortunately, all to common in very many places. These are not just harmful to the animals but can be very detrimental to people. For example, there is a virus that causes people’s behavior to change. If they eat, for instance, meat in other countries, that has not been cooked particularly well, then people are at risk of ingesting this infection. And it can lead to changes in behavioral patterns. People have even posed the question, and researched, if this might be changing the behavior of whole nations. This sounds like science fiction, but …’

At this point the radio host intervened to ask: Where has this come up?

‘This is very common,’ Sigmundur Davíð replied, ‘for example widely in East-Europe, France, not least Belgium. Actually all over the world. The prevalence is variable, but there are some countries that stand out, where this toxoplasma is rare. That’s Iceland. And Norway. And the UK, actually. Remarkably. There, people are rather safe against this critter.’

The Prime Minister then recommended that the radio hosts interview a scientist or a doctor about this ‘extremely interesting’ phenomenon.

Toxoplasma Facts: 10% Of Icelanders Already Infected

The unicellular parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii was discovered in 1908. Research papers on the parasite are widely available. And yes, it’s a parasite. Not a virus. Which is, evidently, besides the point. Around half of all living humans are thought to be infected, making it one of the most common human infections. The figures vary greatly between countries. According to estimates, 6,7% of Koreans are infected. 12,3% of people in China. 23,9% of the Nigerian population, 46% of people in Tanzania and 47% of France’s rural population. 14% of the U.S. population are infected, according to one source, 22,5% according to another. And, according to research conducted in 2006, so are 10% of Icelanders.

In the vast majority of cases, an infection does not lead to noticeable symptoms. Some experience symptoms similar to those of a flu.

In the vast majority of cases, an infection does not lead to noticeable symptoms. Some experience symptoms similar to those of a flu. The most serious symptoms mainly affect people with weakened immune systems. They may suffer severe lung problems, blurred vision, seizures and more. Due to toxoplasma’s global prevalence the low percentage that does suffer symptoms adds up to a significant number of people.

The parasite has been shown to affect animal behavior. Toxoplasmosis may, for example, cause rodents to approach cats, by blocking ‘the innate aversion of rats for cat urine, instead producing an attraction to the pheromone’. Having chased cat-urine, the rodents get eaten and thus infect the feline. As felines are toxoplasma’s ‘definitive hosts’, this would all be in the parasite’s best interest. Recently, this has led to research regarding the parasite’s potential effect on human behavior. Studies seem to indicate subtle behavioral effects on humans, albeit not quite as simple as in the case of rodents. Infected men are said to show the tendency to ‘disregard rules’ and be ‘more expedient, suspicious, jealous, and dogmatic’, while women ‘showed higher warmth … were more warm-hearted, outgoing, conscientious, persistent, and moralistic.’ In response to the PM’s interest in these effects, Magnús Karl Magnússon, professor of pharmacology at the University of Iceland has, however, stated that the research has been ‘controversial at best’ and the conclusions vague.

Specialists recommend ‘washing fruits and vegetables’ and ‘avoiding consumption of raw and undercooked meat’ as effective ways to reduce transmission of toxoplasma. ‘Wearing gloves or washing hands after and during gardening or yard work’ is also recommended. The parasite reportedly spreads through cat litter, so those wanting to avoid infection should also handle litter boxes hygienically.

Historical Context

The Prime Minister is a well-known proponent of Icelandic foodstuff and has publicly praised it for exceptional nutritional value before. In 2011, Sigmundur Davíð declared that he had started on ‘the Icelandic diet’, eating only Icelandic food-products. In his announcement, he cited an unspecified gastroenterologist, who had apparently told Sigmundur that ‘Icelandic food is the most wholesome in the world’.

Sources

The Interview
The Icelandic Diet
Interview on toxoplasma’s immune system effects
The rodents and the cats
Behavioral effects on humans
Toxoplasma in Sweden, Estonia and Iceland
Epidemiology and Risk Factors
Toxoplasmosis: A Global Threat
Toxoplasmosis and Global Health
WHO
History of Toxoplasma gondii
Vísir Interviews Professor Magnús Karl Magnússon

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