A terrifying-sounding parasite is spreading throughout Florida, and health officials say the blood-suckers – and the disease it causes – may be lurking in other southern U.S. states as well.
The adult forms of rat lungworm are found only in rodents, and infected rats can pass the larvae of the parasites in feces.
Humans can be sickened by rat lungworm through eating raw, undercooked, or infected snails and slugs. It is also possible to ingest the parasite through eating raw or undercooked freshwater shrimp, crabs, or frogs infected with larvae.
In addition, humans can “catch” rat lungworm through contact with produce that contains a snail or slug.
Rat lungworm disease cannot be passed from human to human.
If humans eat a snail infected with rat lungworm, it can mature inside of the brain, instead of inside of a rat. The parasite dies in the brain, where it can cause eosinophilic meningitis. Inside of a rat, it simply returns to the rodent’s bloodstream. 
Where Rat Lungworm is and Where it’s Going
Researchers have found rats that are infected with rat lungworm in 5 Florida counties: Alachua, Hillsborough, Leon, St. Johns, and Orange. Previous studies have identified the parasite in the southern part of the state. Humans have also been infected in Hawaii, Louisiana, and Texas. 
Scientists at the University of Florida collected wild rats, samples of rat feces, and snails from 18 counties throughout the state. Out of 171 rats collected, 39 tested positive for lung ratworm.
The parasite was also found in 6 of the 37 fecal samples. Among the 1,437 snails collected, 27 – from different collection sites – were infected with the parasite. The results came as a bit of shock to researchers, as rat lungworm disease is typically found in more tropical regions, such as Hawaii. 
Since 2000, 23 people in Jamaica have been infected, and consumption of contaminated snails was involved in about 15 of those cases. Two of the cases resulted in death, and 4 of them caused lasting neurological damage.
The authors of the recent study write in PLOS ONE:
“This study indicates that A. cantonensis is established in Florida. The ability for this historically subtropical nematode to thrive in a more temperate climate is alarming.”
Rising average temperatures will only expand the parasite’s territory and lead to the further spread of rat lungworm, the scientists note.
Heather Stockdale Warden, an infectious disease researcher at U. Florida and lead author of the study, said in a statement:
“The parasite is here in Florida and 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. The ability for this historically subtropical nematode to thrive in a more temperate climate is alarming.” 
Some Symptoms of Ray Lungworm Disease
Not everyone who is infected with rat lungworm disease will get sick, but those that do may experience the symptoms of eosinophilic meningitis, including:
- Stiff neck
- Tingling or painful feelings in the skin
- Low-grade fever
Symptoms can last from 2 to 8 weeks, and don’t always need treatment. However, serious complications and death can occur over time if the infection is not diagnosed in a timely manner.
To avoid infection, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend washing vegetables, and avoiding ingestion of raw or undercooked slugs.
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