Rat lungworm disease was found in at least five Florida counties. Getty Images

A sinister sounding – and potentially deadly – parasitic disease was located in Florida by a team of researchers. Rat lungworm disease was found in at least five counties in the Sunshine State by a group of scientists at the University of Florida.

The parasitic nematode relies on hosts like rats or snails to live and breed, though they can make their way to humans and cause illness or death. When it infects humans, the parasite can make its way to the brain and die there, causing eosinophilic meningitis that can lead to coma or death.

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Florida’s Alachua, Leon, St. Johns, Orange and Hillsborough counties all tested positive for the parasite, according to researchers at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine and the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“The parasite is here in Florida and is something that needs to be taken seriously,” Heather Stockdale Walden, an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s department of infectious diseases and pathology, said in a press release in early July. “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 parasite can make its way into the human body when people consume infected snails, frogs or crustaceans. And while that might not seem like a big problem for those who don’t routinely eat snails, the small creatures are often hidden inside produce like lettuce and can be consumed unintentionally.

“Wash produce,” said Stockdale Walden. “Some snails are very small and can easily hide in lettuce leaves. Teach children not to eat snails and if they handle snails, make sure they wash their hands.”

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The parasite is more prevalent in Hawaii, though it’s distribution has been increasing over time and infections have begun to occur in other places, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rat lungworm disease researcher Sue Jarvi said in a July 4 press conference that 90 percent of rats tested in Hawaii were carrying the disease, presenting a problem for a location that serves as a port for places around the world.

“We are probably exporting rat lungworm from Hawaii island,” said Jarvi. “We probably need to address this issue a little more seriously.”