PSA: Watch Out For This Worm!
The New Guinea Flatworm: it’s slippery. It’s slimy. It’s gross looking. And it just might be dangerous!
As the name implies, the New Guinea Flatworm (platydemus manokwari) is native to New Guinea. However, it spreads through the transfer of soils to other areas, and is now found across a variety of areas. The worm was first spotted in South Florida in 2012, and was recently found in the Tampa Bay area, resulting in a wave of concerns and a viral Facebook post urging anyone who spots a New Guinea Flatworm to immediately call 911.
The Rat Lungworm Parasite
This is because the New Guinea Flatworm is a host for a parasite called angiostrongylus cantonensis, or rat lungworm. Rat lungworm is about as gross as it sounds — the adult form of the parasite only affects rats, but the larvae of the parasite grow inside the rat’s lungs, then passes through the rat’s feces. When slugs or snails ingest the larvae, they become carriers for the parasite. And when rats eat the infected slugs or snails, the whole process starts over again. For a human to become infected, they need to ingest an infected snail or slug. This is most likely to occur when a person consumes raw produce, which could contain very small snails or slugs. The infection is also particularly prevalent among young children, who are more likely to handle or eat a snail or slug out of curiosity or because of a dare. It cannot pass from person to person.
In most cases, the rat lungworm infection is not fatal in humans. Actually, most people don’t display symptoms, and the parasite dies on its own without antibiotics or other treatment. In rare cases, however, the parasite can cause a form of meningitis, which can cause nausea, fever, and neck stiffness.
Overall, the New Guinea Flatworm probably isn’t as big a threat as some people are making it sound— to people, at least. For the environment, though, their invasion could have massive consequences. With no natural predators, the flatworm feeds on small snails and soil invertebrates, like earthworms and slugs. The loss of a few small worms or snails might not seem like that big of a deal, but this can affect other animals that rely on snails for food, like birds. It increases the competition within the food chain, and could cause other animal populations to suffer.
If you spot a New Guinea Flatworm, you don’t necessarily have to call 911. You can, however, take a picture and report it to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conversation Commission. They can be killed with hot water, but do not handle the flatworm, even a dead one. The New Guinea Flatworm might not necessitate mass hysteria, but to prevent parasites and protect our ecosystem, it is something we should be aware of this summer.
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