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African land snail

Attack of the killer African snails that can give you meningitis

Saturday, June 08, 2013 by: David Gutierrez, staff writer
Tags: African land snail, meningitis, invasive species

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(NaturalNews) A recent scare in Texas has drawn attention to a remarkably destructive invasive species that, in addition to wreaking havoc on local agriculture and ecosystems, can actually give human beings meningitis.

The giant African land snail (also known as the East African land snail, or Achatina fulica), is considered one of the world's foremost invasive species. Growing up to 3 inches (7 cm) high and 8 inches (20 cm) long, the snail feeds on at least 500 separate kinds of plants, lives for nine years, and lays nearly 1,200 eggs per year. In addition to devastating agricultural and wild plants, these snails can feed on materials as unusual as plastic signs and recycling bins, or even the stucco on building walls. The pointy edges of their shells are sharp enough to actually blow out the tires of vehicles that drive over them.

As the United States is not their native habitat, these snails have no predators and have begun reproducing unchecked; more than 100,000 of the snails were collected by Florida wildlife officials earlier this year. And as if all that weren't enough, the snails often play host to a small (1-inch) organism known as the rat lungworm. This nematode typically inhabits the hearts and pulmonary arteries of rats, but if ingested by humans can migrate into the central nervous system and cause eosinophilic meningitis. This disease, in turn, can lead to death or to permanent nerve and brain damage.

"If a person comes in contact with the snail, the nematode present can then enter the person's body, eventually making its way into the brain," said Mark Fagan of the Florida Department of Agriculture.

Although many slugs and snails carry rat lungworms, they typically cannot transmit the parasites to humans unless they are eaten. But some species, including the giant African snail, also leave behind living lungworms in their slime trails. This is a particular concern with the African snail, which leads substantial trails all over garden plants that may then be eaten by unwitting humans. Another concern is that because the snails are so large, people are more likely to pick them up and handle them.

Don't pick them up

In addition to Florida, the invasive snails have also been spotted in the Great Lakes area. And on May 8, residents of a Houston neighborhood had a scare when a local woman took a photo of a giant snail and reported it to local authorities.

"Unfortunately, humans are picking the snails up," said Autumn J. Smith-Herron of Sam Houston State University. "They carry a parasitic disease that can cause a lot of harm to humans and sometimes even death."

"That's crazy," local resident Jack Fendrick said. "I think most people, kids especially, will see a big snail and want to touch it. With meningitis as one of the side effects, that's scary."

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) later identified the Texas snails as a native (non-meningitis carrying) species, the African snail is still a serious concern in other regions of the country. Authorities urge people to remain alert and not to pick up unusual-looking snails.

"We have no reason to believe there are Giant African Snails in Texas at this time," said Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. "When you see something that you don't recognize and you think may be an invasive pest, please report it. You can do this by going to the Hungry Pest website at www.hungrypest.com, or calling your State's USDA office, State Agricultural office or extension offices."

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