Rat Lungworm Parasite Spreads Across Florida: Here's How You Can Get Infected

A new study shows that a species of parasitic lungworm that can infect the brain has established itself in multiple counties in Florida. Know how rat lungworm can harm the brain, and how accidental contamination can be prevented.

Rat Lungworm Spread In Florida

In April, Hawaii officials were concerned about the rising number of Angiostrongylus infection, more commonly known as rat lungworm, in the island state. In the last 20 years, only two cases of rat lungworm have been recorded, but six cases were already reported in the past few months.

As it happens, a study in the journal PLoS ONE followed the string of cases in Florida. According to the study, 23 percent out of the 171 rat samples turned out positive for the parasite. What's more, five counties out of 18 were found to be positive for the presence of the parasite.

It is worth noting that the parasite is not indigenous to the state, and is more often found in tropical countries and regions such as in Southeast Asia. However, researchers found that the spread of the parasite in non-indigenous regions is because of the increasing temperatures brought about by climate change.

How Rat Lungworm Harms The Brain

Rat lungworm was first described in rats in China in 1935. It is described as such because its early stages involve rats as the definitive hosts, and snails as intermediary hosts. Humans, unfortunately, are merely accidental hosts of the parasite.

What often happens is that the worm matures in its human host's brain and eventually dies there instead of moving back into the bloodstream just like they do in rats. This causes eosinophilic meningitis, which manifests itself in the form of a headache, neurological debilitation, comatose, and occasionally, death, depending on the location and number of parasites, and the patient's reaction.

Essentially, the brain damage is often caused either by the parasite's physical movement around the brain, or the immune system's reaction to the parasite, which is often more severe to dead rather than live parasites.

Accidental Human Infection

As described, humans are merely accidental hosts of the parasite, and this is often through the ingestion of raw or undercooked slugs and snails, whether intentional or not. Humans may also get the parasite through hosts wherein the parasite is unable to develop but remains alive. These include raw or undercooked shrimp, flatworms, frogs, land crabs, or contaminated vegetables.

As such, safe and thorough food preparation is key in avoiding parasite infections. As always, thorough hand and utensil washing is key in safe food preparation, especially when handling raw snails or slugs.

If the food is intended to be eaten raw, a thorough washing of the food items is important in reducing the risks of infection. Further, removing stray snail, slugs, and rats in or around the household and garden may also lessen the risks of being accidental carriers of the parasite.

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