Scientists are issuing warnings about the spread of a parasitic brain worm known as Rat lungworm, or Angiostrongylus cantonensis, in southeastern America. Traditionally found in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, this invasive parasite is now making its presence felt in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and, most recently, Atlanta, Georgia.
Contaminated Food as the Culprit
Rat lungworm is transmitted through the consumption of contaminated food, including fresh produce and escargots. While the parasite cannot reproduce inside humans, it can lead to severe symptoms in rare cases.
Symptoms and Severity
When the infective stage of the worm is accidentally ingested by a human, it can cause inflammation in the brain or spinal cord. This can result in symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, neck stiffness, headaches, and even limb tingling. Severe cases may lead to coma or death, although some individuals may initially experience no symptoms, with neurological issues arising later.
A Complex Life Cycle
The parasite’s life cycle involves multiple animal hosts. Rat lungworm eggs hatch in rat lungs, and as larvae develop, they are shed in rat feces and consumed by gastropods like snails and slugs. After further development in gastropods, they reach the infective third-larval stage. At this point, the gastropods may be eaten by rats or spread their parasites onto fresh produce, which is how humans become infected.
Children at Risk
Children may be particularly vulnerable, experiencing pronounced symptoms such as fevers, irritability, drowsiness, lethargy, stomach problems, and muscle twitching.
Monitoring and Prevention
To monitor the spread of the parasite, researchers have been testing rat populations, as it is believed to spread via infected rats on cargo ships. Recent studies have shown that rat lungworm is indeed present in wild rat populations in Atlanta, indicating a potential threat to human health.
Addressing the Concern
A collaborative “one health” approach is critical. It involves local communities, scientists, public health experts, medical professionals, and veterinarians to better understand the risks posed by this parasite and prevent infections.
Precautions for Safety
To protect against infection, individuals are advised to:
Thoroughly wash vegetables.
Avoid consuming raw or undercooked snails or slugs, crabs, freshwater shrimp, or frog legs.
Wear gloves when handling snails or slugs.
Practice good hygiene by washing vegetables and hands regularly.
Awareness and these precautions can help safeguard against the potential risks associated with this emerging health concern.
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