GAINEVILLE, Fla. (WOGX FOX 51) - Researchers at the University of Florida have discovered a parasite that can cause meningitis in humans and animals, in five Florida counties.
Rats and snails in Alachua, Leon, St. Johns, Orange and Hillsborough counties tested positive for the rat lungworm parasite, according to a study in PLoS ONE by researchers in the UF College of Veterinary Medicine and the Florida Museum of Natural History.
Heather Walden, assistant professor at UF's department of infectious diseases, says their research found rat lungworm is spreading across the Sunshine State. Rats and snails in the above-mentioned counties have tested positive for the potentially lethal parasite.
"Our sample size was relatively low, so it was probably at higher numbers than reported in the paper," Walden says.
Researchers say people and pets can become infected by eating snails, infected frogs and crustaceans, causing potentially fatal meningitis.
"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 explains.
Researchers say the best prevention is good hygiene and careful food preparation. Keep children and pets away from snails and keep an eye out for small snails hiding in produce, like a head of 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 says.
Managing rat populations could help curtail the parasite in places like zoos and conservation centers, she adds.