As reported by Gizmodo, Scientists have discovered a brain-eating parasitic worm infection has made its home in the rats of some southeastern states in the United States. The parasite is called rat lungworm. Its name stems from the fact that the infection begins in the lungs of rats.
A worm infects a rat’s lungs. The rat coughs, catching eggs laid by the infectious worms in their throat. They then swallow, and the eggs enter the rat’s digestive system. When the eggs are dispelled, the feces are then ingested by snails or slugs, and the eggs hatch, infecting a new host.
Brain-eating parasites known as rat lungworm are being found in the southeastern states of the U.S.
You may think it’s not much of a problem until you consider the implications of the new brain-eating parasites. Domestic animals (like cats or dogs) who come into close contact with the rat lungworm eggs may also have the ability to become infected.
Human infections are extremely rare at this point but can lead to some serious consequences. Scientists say that most human infections are rather mild and passive, but a heavy parasitic infection of this type can invade the nervous system or brain and cause what is called eosinophilic meningitis.
Fish, frogs, and crustaceans also have the capacity to become infected with the parasitic larvae. Though these animals are a less preferred host for rat lungworms, they are still viable hosts, creating another potential route of transmission for the brain-eating parasites to humans.
Louisiana, Texas, Florida, and now Georgia have all shown signs of rat lungworm being present in native rodents.
Most of the infections that have been documented in humans come from areas like Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. In Hawaii, brain-eating parasite infections in rats (or rat lungworms) are common in the area. It’s almost like the rat lungworm infection is its own invasive species in the Islands.
However, scientists have discovered that the parasites have made their way to the mainland in recent years. Louisiana, Texas, Florida, and now Georgia have all shown signs of rat lungworm being present in native rodents.
Tissue samples from brown rats found dead around the area of a local Atlanta zoo between 2019 and 2022 show that around 20 percent of the rats tested positive for rat lungworm. When the worms that cause the brain-eating parasites to develop were examined more closely, it was discovered that the worms found in Atlanta closely resemble the worms found in Florida and other parts of the United States.
These recent findings suggest that the zoonotic parasite has now become established in the States, and thus, people should be more aware of how it can be transmitted. In humans, the brain-eating parasite is transferred by eating raw or undercooked hosts. Shrimp, snails, slugs, crustaceans, some fish, or even the rats themselves can transmit the rat lungworm larvae to a new host when eaten.
All in all, it’s probably not something you should walk around your backyard in fear of contracting.
Testing, diagnosis, and treatment of the issue are still in the developmental stage. Doctors in most parts of the U.S. don’t know much about the problem, meaning that some human infections could possibly go undocumented.
In Hawaii, doctors confirm a diagnosis with a polymerase chain reaction (or PCR) test. The test is able to detect the presence of the brain-eating parasite in the cerebral spinal fluid of the patient in question.
Steroids and some anti-parasitic drugs are typically used to treat the infection, but there is no simple standard to eradicate the issue. The brain-eating parasite is not able to reproduce in humans, so they die in the cerebral spinal fluid, causing inflammation in the brain. The treatment is simply to control the inflammation and ease the headaches caused by the infection.
All in all, it’s probably not something you should walk around your backyard in fear of contracting. It is, however, an important issue that should be monitored for progression. We can’t have all of our farm animals and domestic pals being infected with a brain-eating parasite.