‘Alarming’ parasite that can cause meningitis spreading through Florida, researchers warn

(WSVN) - Researchers say they have discovered a parasite in five Florida counties that can cause meningitis in humans and animals.

The parasitic roundworm, known as rat lungworm, is native to Hawaii and tropical locations, and while small studies have previously placed it in southern Florida, University of Florida researchers call their latest findings “alarming.”

The parasite has been found in both rats and snails in Alachua, Leon, St. Johns, Orange and Hillsborough counties, according to a study by researchers from the University of Florida and Florida Museum of Natural History.

Heather Walden, assistant professor at UF’s department of infectious diseases, told Fox 51 that rat lungworm is spreading across the state, and is most likely in more than just the five counties listed.

“Our sample size was relatively low, so it was probably at higher numbers than reported in the paper,” Walden said.

The parasite uses rats as its definitive hosts and snails as intermediate hosts, according to the study. The researchers said people and pets can become contract potentially-fatal meningitis by consuming infected snails, frogs, and crustaceans.

“The larvae will travel to the brain, and since it’s not the rat host, the larvae get caught up in the brain and they die there,” Walden told Fox 51.

The paper said clinical signs in adults include headache, stiff neck, fever, vomiting and nausea. Paralysis of the face and limbs is also common. In some cases, surgery is needed if the parasite enters the eye. In severe infections, coma or death may occur.

Walden said the best prevention is good hygiene and careful food preparation. The researchers recommend keeping both children and pets away from snails, and warn to keep an eye out for small snails that could hide in produce like lettuce.

“Wash your produce, make sure you are clean, good hygiene, and keeping an eye out where there are snails, as far as pets go,” Walden said.

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