Researchers at the University of Florida have discovered rat lungworm in five Florida counties. The parasite, which can cause Meningitis and potentially death in humans, is also known to cause severe medical issues for pets.

According to the University research, rats and snails tested positive for the potentially parasite in Alachua, Leon, St Johns, Hillsborough  and Orange counties… not in Osceola County as of yet.

Research into the rat lungworm parasite began in 2012 when a privately-owned orangutan in Miami tested positive. Over 2,800 cases of rat lungworm infection in humans have been reported worldwide, but it is believed that many more may have been undetected, or even misdiagnosed. While the virus actually has a low fatality rate in humans, it can cause meningitis if it becomes trapped and dies in the brain.

As of yet there have been no human cases of infection reported in Florida, and it is believed that the infected snails and rats in the latest Florida wave most likely arrived via cargo containers and potted plants.|

University of Florida researchers warn the public that the parasite can be ingested by consuming infected snails, frogs or crustaceans. Headache, stiff neck, fever, vomiting, nausea and paralysis of the face and limbs are all symptoms of rat lungworm infection.

“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 look for the presence of snails where pets live as it can be potentially lethal to animals if ingested.