Scientists Issue Warning: Parasitic Brain Worm Spreading Across Southeastern U.S.

Parasitic Brain Worm Spreading: A parasitic brain worm capable of being transmitted through contaminated produce is rapidly spreading throughout southeastern America, according to a recent alert from scientists.

Known as rat lungworm (Angiostrongylus cantonensis), this invasive parasite is primarily transmitted through the consumption of contaminated food, including fresh produce and escargots. While typically found in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, particularly Hawaii, recent sightings have identified the parasite in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida. Alarming new cases have now been confirmed in Atlanta, Georgia, raising concerns about its potential spread across the United States.

Although the parasite cannot reproduce within humans, it can still cause severe symptoms in rare instances. Nicole Gottdenker, a Professor of Pathology at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, explained that when accidentally ingested, the infective stage of the worm can reach the brain or spinal cord, leading to inflammation and a range of distressing symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, neck stiffness, headaches, and occasionally tingling sensations in the extremities.

Parasitic Brain Worm Spreading 1
Kateryna Kon/Getty Images/Science Photo Library

In severe cases, infection can even result in coma or death, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Interestingly, some individuals may initially experience no symptoms during the first few weeks of infection, only to develop neurological symptoms later on.

The life cycle of this parasite involves intricate transmission through various animal hosts. As the name suggests, the lungworm eggs hatch within the lungs of rats. As the larvae mature, they are expelled in rat feces and subsequently consumed by gastropods like slugs and snails. The larvae continue to develop within these gastropods until they reach the infective third-larval stage. At this point, the gastropods might be consumed by rats, thus perpetuating the cycle. However, during this final stage, the gastropods may also be consumed by other animals or contaminate fresh produce, ultimately leading to human exposure. The parasites then migrate to the brain, and occasionally the eyes or lungs.

Although symptoms typically last between two and eight weeks, they can persist for longer periods. Children may be particularly vulnerable, experiencing more pronounced symptoms such as fever, irritability, drowsiness, lethargy, stomach problems, and muscle twitching.

Parasitic Brain Worm Spreading Across Southeastern U.S.

To monitor the spread of the parasite, researchers believe it is transmitted via infected rats on cargo ships. Testing rat populations can serve as a useful tool in tracking their distribution. A recent study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases involved Nicole Gottdenker and a team of researchers from Texas A&M, Zoo Atlanta, and Mississippi State University. They collected tissue samples from 33 wild brown rats discovered deceased on the premises of an Atlanta zoological facility between 2019 and 2022. Analysis revealed that seven of the rats exhibited worm-like larvae in their tissues, with four confirmed as rat lungworms. Although the remaining three samples also displayed similarities, there was insufficient genetic evidence to confirm their identity.

While the number of confirmed cases is relatively small, the study underscores the presence of the parasite among Atlanta’s wild rat populations, posing a potential threat to human health.

Gottdenker emphasized the need for a comprehensive understanding of the parasite’s ecology, its interaction with humans, domestic animals, captive animals, and wildlife, and the associated public health implications. Furthermore, she stressed the importance of comprehending how climate change and human activities, such as urbanization, can impact the spread of this parasite.

Parasitic Brain Worm Spreading Across Southeastern U.S 1
Photo of a mature rat lungworm. At this stage, the parasite can be passed from infected slugs, snails and contaminated produce to humans.

It is worth noting that the parasite can also cause fatal infections in pets, birds, and other wild animals.

To combat the risks posed by this parasite, Gottdenker urged collaboration between local communities, scientists, public health officials, medical professionals, and veterinarians in adopting a unified “one health” approach. This collaborative effort aims to enhance understanding of the risks to both humans and animals, as well as to develop effective prevention strategies.

Gottdenker also provided specific precautions to safeguard oneself and one’s family. These include thoroughly washing vegetables, refraining from consuming raw or undercooked snails, slugs, crabs, freshwater shrimp, or frog legs, and wearing gloves when handling snails or slugs. And, as a general rule, always remember to “wash your veggies” and “wash your hands!”

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