Researchers at the University of Florida have found a potentially lethal parasite in 5 different Florida counties.
A study uncovered that rat lungworm, which can cause meningitis in humans and animals, was found in rats and snails in Alachua, Hillsborough, Leon, Orange and St. Johns counties.
According to UF, rat lungworm is occasionally found in the southern U.S. and relies on rat and snail hosts to complete its life cycle, and can pose a health risk to humans and animals that ingest infected snails.
They say fatality rate of infection in humans is low, but the parasite can cause a type of meningitis if it becomes trapped and dies in the brain, and severe infections can cause coma or death.
The University reports that signs of infection can include a headache, stiff neck, fever, vomiting, nausea, and paralysis of the face and limbs.
Heather Stockdale Walden, the study's lead author, says the parasite is something that needs to be taken seriously.
“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," she said. "The ability for this historically subtropical nematode to thrive in a more temperate climate is alarming.”
The University says that while no human cases of infection with rat lungworm, or Angiostrongylus cantonensis, have been reported in Florida, eating lungworm-infected snails killed a white-handed gibbon at Zoo Miami in 2003 and a privately owned orangutan in Miami in 2012.
Stockdale Walden said to help lower the risk of infection, you should wash produce, be aware of the potential risks associated with eating snails and raw or undercooked frogs and crustaceans, and be mindful of snails in animals' living space to protect your pets.