A brain-affecting parasite, primarily transmitted through contaminated produce, is expanding its reach in the southeastern U.S., prompting alarm from experts.
The rat lungworm, or Angiostrongylus cantonensis, typically originates from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. It’s primarily spread by consuming infected food, especially fresh vegetables and snails. While it’s not native to the U.S., recent findings have pinpointed its presence in states like Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida. Furthermore, its detection in Georgia stresses the growing concerns about its U.S. spread.
How Do Humans Get Infected?
Humans can get infected by eating contaminated food. This could be fresh produce or specific animals like snails and slugs.
Nicole Gottdenker, a Professor of Pathology at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, explained to Newsweek, “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.”
In rare situations, the infection can lead to coma or even death, according to the CDC.
How Does It Spread?
The life cycle of this worm begins with rats. When these rats expel larvae in their feces, gastropods, like slugs and snails, consume them. The parasite then transfers to humans and other animals through direct consumption of these infected gastropods or contaminated food.
It’s important to note that the parasite is not transmitted from person to person.
If the worm reaches the brain, it can cause:
- Neck stiffness
- Tingling in arms and legs
Gottdenker mentioned that while symptoms typically last between two and eight weeks, they can sometimes persist for much longer. She also highlighted that children are at greater risk, often displaying intensified symptoms such as fevers, irritability, drowsiness, lethargy, stomach issues, and muscle twitching.
To protect against this parasite, a joint effort is necessary from communities, scientists, and health officials. For individual precautions:
- Thoroughly wash vegetables.
- Avoid eating raw or undercooked snails and certain seafood.
- Wear gloves when handling snails or slugs.
- Maintain hand hygiene, especially after handling food.
The spread of the rat lungworm is a concern, but by staying informed and taking precautions, we can protect ourselves and our communities.
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