Danger that Lurks in the Garden

It has come to my attention recently about the dangers of slugs and snails. I have asked Peter Banks, Associate Professor in Conservation Biology at the University of Sydney to enlighten us on these dangers. Slugs and snails are a carrier of the potentially dangerous Rat Lungworm.

Rat lungworm (Angiostrongylus cantonensis) is a parasite that has a life cycle passing between introduced rats (black rats and brown rats) and snails/slugs. This lungworm is not native to Australia and was first described from Brisbane and is thought to have arrived with infected rats. Indeed native rats don’t appear to carry this lungworm although native snails can be hosts. Infected rats release eggs of the lungworm in their feaces. Slugs or snails that eat infected rat feaces then become infected and the lungworm develops into another life phase in the muscle of the slugs. The lungworm then completes its lifecycle by getting back into a rat when a rat eats an infected slug, adult lungworms develop and begin releasing eggs again. Humans, pets and wildlife can become infected with the lungworm if they ingest an infected slug or snail, but these are dead-end hosts, i.e. the lungworm can’t complete its life cycle. The fresh slime of snails and slugs can also have lungworms, which may be passed on to humans and other animals, although the risks are probably lower with dry slime as outside of hosts the lungworm dries quickly. Lungworms are dangerous because once ingested they first head to the brain where they can cause meningitis type symptoms, with damage to brain tissue and swelling of the brain before the lungworm dies. Many people show no symptoms at all before the lungworm dies but others are greatly affected. In Sydney in 2011 alone one baby girl has died due to lungworm infection and two young adults have severe brain injury after eating slugs. This low number of cases suggests that the risk of infection is possibly low, however the consequences can be disastrous. Also, its not known whether lungworm is on the increase. To prevent infection, young kids shouldn’t be allowed to play with slugs and snails, especially if there is a local rat problem. Hands should always be washed after touching slugs or snails. Garden vegies should be washed before use and checked for small slugs. To break the lungworm cycle completely, regular rat and slug/snail control around the house is necessary.

Fortunately the occurrences of infection of the Rat Lung Worm disease is rare. If you would like more information on this topic the NSW Health has a Rat Lung Worm fact sheet which can be accessed through this link. PETER BANKS | Associate Professor in Conservation Biology School of Biological Sciences |Behavioural Ecology and Conservation Research Group THE UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY www.sydney.edu.au/science/biology

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