A parasitic brain worm is spreading across the southern United States.
The rat lungworm, Angiostrongylus cantonensis, is normally found in snails or the pulmonary arteries of rats but can be ingested by humans through contaminated produce, water, and escargot.
The species cannot reproduce inside of humans but can cause severe symptoms including eosinophilic meningitis, which can cause brain damage or death.
Native to southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, the roundworm species has previously been identified in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida — but more recently, cases have been reported in Atlanta, Georgia.
The new location has led to scientists warning about a possible spread in the U.S.
“When the infective stage of the worm is accidentally ingested by a human, it can go to the brain or spinal cord and cause tremendous inflammation, leading to symptoms like nausea, vomiting, neck stiffness, headaches, sometimes arm and leg tingling,” Nicole Gottdenker, a Professor of Pathology at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, told Newsweek.
Gottdenker added, “This is the first report in Georgia, and according to our cases analyzed here, the parasite has been in Atlanta since at least 2019.”
“We need to understand more about the ecology of the parasite as it spreads and how it interacts with people, domestic animals, animals in captivity, and wildlife to further understand public health implications. Also, it is critical to understand the ways in which climate change and human land use (e.g. urbanization) can influence the spread of this parasite.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “There is no specific treatment for A. costaricensis infections. Most infections resolve spontaneously though sometime surgical treatment is necessary to removed portions of inflamed intestine. Persons with symptoms should consult their health care provider for more information.”
People who have been infected can exhibit no immediate symptoms but still have neurological issues later.
The CDC warns, “Risk factors for infection with A. costaricensis are not well established but are likely to be ingestion of infected slugs or raw vegetables or vegetable juices contaminated with slugs or their slime, which can contain A. costaricensis larvae. The infection of transport hosts, which are not essential to the lifecycle of the parasite, has not been identified and any role in human infection is not known, in contrast to A. cantonensis.”
The agency says that there are some reports showing that the case rate is higher among children 6 to 12 years old, males, and people of higher socioeconomic status.
The parasite can also be fatal to animals, including pets.
“We need to work with our local communities in collaboration with scientists, public health, the medical establishment, and veterinarians in a ‘one health’ approach to better understand the risks to people and animals posed by this parasite, and to better prevent infection,” Gottdenker told Newsweek.
Methods suggested by Gottdenker to avoid infection include washing your produce and exercising caution when eating snails and other aquatic animals.
“People can avoid infection by washing vegetables thoroughly, not eating raw or undercooked snails or slugs, crabs, freshwater shrimp, or frog legs—and wear gloves if handling snails or slugs. And, as always ‘wash your veggies’ and ‘wash your hands!'”