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Deadly brain-invading parasite found in Florida

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – A potentially deadly parasite that can cause meningitis in humans has now spread to Florida.

University of Florida researchers found rat lungworm in five counties. The parasite can also cause severe medical issues for pets.

According to the school report, rats and snails tested positive for the parasite in Alachua, Leon, St Johns, Orange and Hillsborough counties.

However, research into the parasites began when a privately-owned orangutan in Miami tested positive in 2012. A Zoo Miami gibbon died from rat lungworm infection in 2003.

It is thought the infected snails and rats in the latest Florida wave most likely arrived on cargo containers and potted plants.

More than 2,800 cases of rat lungworm infection in humans have been cited worldwide, but many more may have been undetected or misdiagnosed.

No human cases of infection have been reported in Florida.

While rat lungworm has a low fatality rate, it can cause meningitis if it becomes trapped and dies in the brain.

Researchers warn the parasite can be ingested by consuming infected snails, frogs or crustaceans.

Signs of infection include headache, stiff neck, fever, vomiting, nausea and paralysis of the face and limbs.

"The parasite is here in Florida and is something that needs to be taken seriously," UF assistant professor Heather Stockdale Warren says in the report. "The reality is that it is probably in more counties than we found it in, and it is also probably more prevalent in the southeastern U.S. than we think. The ability for this historically subtropical nematode to thrive in a more temperate climate is alarming."

The report claims nearly 23 percent of rats and 16 percent of rat fecal samples in 18 counties tested positive for the parasite.

Florida residents are urged to be mindful of snails being present in areas where animals live.