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Rat lungworm found in Pasco’s giant African land snails. Here’s what to know

It’s unlikely that you’ll get the parasite from touching an infected snail. But maybe don’t eat them.
The carcass of a giant African land snail decays in its shell in the back yard at East Richey Lawn Mower and Equipment earlier this month. The state has confirmed that some snails they've found in Pasco County have tested positive for rat lungworm, which poses a danger to human who consume them.
The carcass of a giant African land snail decays in its shell in the back yard at East Richey Lawn Mower and Equipment earlier this month. The state has confirmed that some snails they've found in Pasco County have tested positive for rat lungworm, which poses a danger to human who consume them. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jul. 30

Scientists have detected rat lungworm, a parasite known to cause meningitis in humans, in giant African land snails captured in New Port Richey, state agriculture officials announced this week.

When ingested, the brain-burrowing parasite can cause excruciating pain — migraines, tingling in the skin, fever, nausea. In rare cases, it can lead to a form of meningitis. In severe cases, coma or death.

Related: Rat lungworm: The brain-burrowing parasite is spreading through Florida

But the risk of humans contracting rat lungworm from giant African land snails is low, according to Heather Stockdale Walden, assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Department of Infectious Disease and Pathology. There have been no reported rat lungworm infections in humans in the state’s history, despite prior multi-year infestations of the snails in South Florida.

It’s unlikely that you’ll get the parasite from touching an infected snail.

“If you’re an individual that often eats these (snails), then you would be concerned,” said Stockdale Walden, who researches rat lungworm in snails across Florida.

Infection also can come from eating unwashed produce that has snails on it. An infected person cannot spread rat lungworm to others.

State officials nevertheless continue to treat the snails as a serious problem, because they do pose a significant risk to Florida’s crops.

If they become entrenched in the state, all of Florida’s agriculture could be at risk, according to Christina Chitty, a public information officer with Florida’s Agriculture and Consumer Services. The snail eats hundreds of types of plants, but when a pest is established in a new area, the types of plants they can consume increases.

The snails can also latch onto cargo, threatening Florida’s national and international exports, according to Chitty.

Because the giant snails aren’t native to Florida, they have no natural predators here, said Dr. José Leal, a malacologist, or snail scientist, and science director at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. And they reproduce prolifically undisturbed, laying up to 2,500 eggs a year that hatch snails that can grow up to eight inches when they mature.

“When you add all of that, it makes for an unpleasant invader, to say the least,” Leal said.

Almost 3,000 snails have been collected during 600 inspections since officials identified the intruder on June 23, according to state agriculture officials. The size of the quarantine and treatment area has not increased. The zone stretches from the northwest corner of the U.S. 19-Ridge Road intersection, east to Little Road and south to Trouble Creek Road.

If no snails are detected beyond the area, the state could declare eradication in three years, Chitty said. Treatment on properties, including the spread of a pesticide that kills the pests, will continue for 17 months.

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Despite assurances about the risk to humans, Jay Pasqua, whose lawn mower repair shop is in the epicenter of the snail invasion, said he’s worried about his pets.

“If I take my dog out to walk him, and he turns around and licks this (snail), is he going to ingest it and bring it home to my cats?” Pasqua asked. “Do I have to quarantine him from the other animals?”

The answer is no — while rat lungworm can affect animals, it’s unlikely the parasite will spread to other pets, Stockdale Walden said. There have been no reported pet infections in Florida, though dogs in Hawaii and Australia, where the snails also have been found, have contracted the disease.

Still, state officials advise people not to touch or remove the snails. Walden encouraged people to watch their pets and children closely. If you do handle a snail, wash your hands thoroughly afterward.

Anyone who believes they have spotted a giant African land snail is asked to call the state’s helpline at 1-888-397-1517.

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