A PARASITIC worm that jumps from rats to slugs to human brains has invaded the US, researchers warn.
Rat lungworm was spotted in a fifth of rats at an Atlanta zoo between 2019 and 2022.
The bug can cause severe stomach and nerve issues in humans, including nausea, vomiting, neck stiffness, and headaches.
The infections in Atlanta suggest there is sustained transmission in the area, experts said.
Dr Nicole Gottdenker, of the University of Georgia, said: “The zoonotic parasite was introduced to and has become established in a new area of the southeastern United States.”
Rat lungworm normally lives in the blood vessels around a rat’s lungs, where it lays eggs.
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The larvae bursts out of the lungs, is coughed up by the rat, then swallowed back down and passed as poo, before being eaten by slugs or snails.
Rats then eat the snails, allowing the process to start again.
However, humans can accidentally become infected if they eat undercooked snails or shellfish that are carrying the worms.
In humans, the bug heads straight for the spinal cord and brain.
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Illness usually lasts between two weeks and two months but can be longer, and appears similar to bacterial meningitis.
Serious complications can occur, leading to nerve damage, paralysis, coma or death in rare cases.
Cases have been spotted in Hawaii, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama before, but have not been sustained.
The latest study, published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, was the first to reveal the parasite in Atlanta’s rats.
Researchers took tissue samples from 33 wild brown rats caught on the zoo grounds.
They found infection in seven rats: one in 2019, three in 2021, and three in 2022.
Researchers warned doctors to be on the lookout for lungworm infections if patients appear to have meningitis.
Dr Gottdenker said: “Understanding patterns of A. cantonensis lungworm in North America is critical to mitigating risk to humans.
“Medical and veterinary professionals throughout the southern US should consider A. cantonensis infection in differential diagnoses.”
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