Brain-Invading Parasite That Can Cause Meningitis Now In Florida, Thanks To Climate Change

A potentially fatal parasite was located in five counties in Florida, researchers of a new study have revealed.

In the study published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers reported that rats and snails in Alachua, Leon, St. Johns, Orange, and Hillsborough counties in Florida were found infected by the rat lungworm parasite.

Increasing Cases Of Rat Lungworm Infection

Hawaii suffered an outbreak of this brain-invading parasite. The disease known as Angiostrongylus Infection is supposed to be rare. Over the past 20 years, only two cases had been recorded in the Pacific island state, but six cases were documented in rapid succession in the past several months.

Now it appears that the parasite is expanding its geographical range in the United States.

Heather Stockdale Walden, from the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine, and colleagues started a study on the parasites in Florida when a privately-owned orangutan in Miami was found positive for rat lungworm.

For their study, the researchers took samples of snails and rat feces and discovered that several of these samples contain rat lungworm. The researchers tested 171 rats and found 23 percent were infected with the disease.

Of the 18 counties the researchers involved in their study, five were found to have traces of rat lungworm.

In the countries where they found the parasite, Walden and colleagues found that about 16 percent of the rat droppings tested showed traces of the disease. Traces of the parasite were likewise found in almost 2 percent of the tested land snails.

Walden noted that rat lungworm is not indigenous to the state and is more likely to be found in tropical areas. The study showed the degree at which the parasite has gained traction in Florida.

Climate Change And Spread Of Rat Lungworm Parasite

The researchers think that climate change is an important factor that contributes to the expanding geographic range of the parasite.

"The ability for this historically subtropical nematode to thrive in a more temperate climate is alarming, however as the climate changes and average temperatures rise, gastropod distributions will probably expand, leading to the spread of this parasite in more temperate areas," the researchers wrote in their study.

Although fatality rate of the infection is low, the parasite is known to cause a type of meningitis that can cause severe infections and possibly death.

The parasite can sicken humans if they ingest infected snails, crustaceans, and vegetables that were contaminated by infected slugs. Humans can also be infected when they come in contact with rat feces.

The parasite can thrive in the blood vessels of the rat's lungs and their larvae get expelled in the rodent's dropping, which can then be eaten by other animals that can pass these young parasitic worms to humans.

"The parasite is here in Florida and is something that needs to be taken seriously," Walden said in a statement. "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."

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