A brain infection caused by a parasite called rat lungworm is a growing threat to humans and animals in the U.S. Southeast, a new study warns. The parasite, whose scientific name is Angiostrongylus cantonensis, can cause a condition called meningoencephalitis, which is a dangerous inflammation of the brain or its surrounding membrane.
How Researchers Discovered Rat Lungworm in Atlanta Rats
The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Georgia in Athens, found that rat lungworm was present in wild brown rats near Atlanta. The researchers collected and analyzed tissue samples from 33 rats that died on the grounds of a zoo in Atlanta between 2019 and 2022. They discovered that four of the rats had the same strain of A. cantonensis in their hearts, lungs and brains.
How Did the Rat Lungworm Parasite Infiltrate Georgia?
The researchers believe that the parasite was introduced to Georgia by infected rats and snails that came from other states or countries through trade routes, such as on merchant ships. A. cantonensis was originally found in Asia and later spread to Hawaii, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida.
The parasite’s life cycle begins in snails, which are eaten by rats. The rats then excrete the parasite in their feces, which can contaminate soil, water and plants.
How Does Rat Lungworm Spread to Humans?
Humans and animals can get infected by accidentally ingesting or coming into contact with the parasite.
The researchers suggest that climate change and human interference may have contributed to the spread of A. cantonensis by creating favorable conditions for new snail species that carry the parasite. They also note that the parasite has been detected in captive wildlife in the Southeast and in a red kangaroo in Mississippi.
The study warns that A. cantonensis poses a serious health risk to humans and animals in the Southeast, and advises doctors and veterinarians to consider it as a possible cause of meningoencephalitis cases. The study was published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
This development makes rats even more creepy than they already are.