An invasive parasitic roundworm, known as rat lungworm, has been found in Hillsborough County and four other Florida counties, according to a new study by University of Florida researchers. The parasite is known to cause meningitis in both humans and animals.
In the study, researchers collected rats and snails in 18 Florida counties. They found that in Hillsborough County - as well as Alachua, Leon, Orange and St. Johns counties - a total of 23 percent of rats, 16 percent of rat feces and 2 percent of snails tested positive for the parasite.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rats, snails and slugs are common hosts for the parasite, but it could be carried by crustaceans like shrimp, too.
Rat lungworm is also native to Hawaii and tropical areas. Researchers said they aren't sure how it got to Florida, but stress in the study that those who accidentally ingest its larvae can experience some health risks, including meningitis.
"The reality is that it is probably in more counties than we found it in, and it is also probably more prevalent in the southeastern U.S. than we think," said Heather Stockdale Walden in an article posted to the UF College of Veterinary Medicine. Stockdale is the study's lead author and assistant professor in the UF Department of Infectious Diseases and Pathology.
The CDC states that common signs of infection for humans include: headaches, fever, vomiting, nausea, stiffness, and even paralysis.
So how can you lower your chances of ingesting the parasite?
According to the CDC:
- Do not ingest raw or undercooked snails, freshwater shrimp, land crabs, frogs or potentially contaminated vegetables or vegetable juice
- Thoroughly wash produce
- Remove any snails, slugs or rats found near houses or gardens
- Wash your hands when handling snails
Regarding pets and livestock, the study suggests owners be mindful of rats and snails in animals' living spaces. Similar to humans, rat lungworm can cause meningitis in animals, as well as limb weakness, paralysis, neck pain and central nervous system problems.