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Potentially Lethal Rat Lungworm Parasite Found In Hillsborough

Courtesy of Florida Museum of Natural History
Bradybaena similaris, a type of snail that harbors the dangerous rat lungworm parasite.

A new disease has been found in five Florida counties, including Hillsborough. It goes by the name of rat lungworm, and it comes courtesy of snails.

Researchers at the University of Florida have found the parasites can cause meningitis in people. And it's been found in Hillsborough, along with Alachua, Leon, St. Johns and Orange counties.

And it most likely is in other counties - as well as warmer parts of the Southeast. Climate change could bring the parasite to more parts of the country.

Rat lungworm comes from Hawaii, and apparently hitched a ride into the southern U.S. on a rat. The study's author is Heather Walden, an assistant professor in Gainesville. She says some snails are very small and can hide in lettuce leaves, so there are precautions that should be taken.

"Just making sure you're washing your produce, good hygiene," she said. "If you're eating snails or any of the other hosts that could cause infection, making sure they're thoroughly cooked. The disease that you see definitely depends on the number of larvae that you ingest. And you're not always going to get meningitis."

While no human cases of infection with rat lungworm, or Angiostrongyliasis, 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.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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