Why an invasive parasitic worm was found in a Pearland family's backyard

HOUSTON – The Texas Invasive Species Institute confirmed that the New Guinea Flatworm has invaded a Pearland family's backyard, and warned her that the worm can carry the rat lungworm parasite.

What is the New Guinea flatworm?

The New Guinea flatworm, or Platydemus manokwari, is a black worm with a pale stripe on its back. It is native to New Guinea, but was discovered in the continental United States in 2015, in Florida, and has since been found in Puerto Rico and Texas.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature called the New Guinea flatworm worm one of the world's "100 worst invasive alien species" because of its threat to snail populations.

The Texas Invasive Species Institute says on its website that the worm can get up to 1.6 to 2.6 inches long, and is "known to be a paratenic host of the rat lungworm. The flatworm itself is not a parasite, but it has the potential to carry them. Please do not pick them up with your bare hands."

What is the rat lungworm parasite?

The Centers for Disease Control says the rat lungworm parasite is born in the lungs of rats and ends up in their feces. Certain worms and snails eat the infected rat poop and carry the parasite.

"Yes, people can get infected, under unusual circumstances," the CDC website says if the infected invertebrates are ingested.

An infected human or pet cannot infect another human or pet.

What happens if you get infected with the rat lungworm parasite?

The CDC calls a rat lungworm infection "rat lungworm disease," and says, "even if infected, most people recover fully without treatment" but when the parasite reaches the brain, it can cause "a rare form of meningitis."

Symptoms can include severe "headache, stiff neck, tingling or painful feelings in the skin, nausea and vomiting."

The CDC says cases of meningitis resulting from ingesting the parasite are "extremely rare," but there have been several cases in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands.

How did the worm end up in Pearland?

Marranda Ganucheau raises butterflies in her backyard in Pearland. To do that, she buys all kinds of plants from a variety of stores, including Lowes and Garden Center. The worms likely came from her plants, she says. That's also how conservationists believe the worm ended up in Florida and Puerto Rico.

“I saw this leech-looking worm and it was just really weird,” Ganucheau said. “It came back the next night, and then there was more of them.”

In two days, Ganucheau collected 50 New Guinea Flatworms and emailed pictures to the Texas Invasive Species Institute. An employee responded, confirming the species of worm, and warned it can “carry roundworm parasites, so don’t handle bare-handed.”

“It still makes me feel, this is like gross, because that parasite could be living on a worm in my yard,” Ganucheau said. She posted the warning on a neighborhood Facebook page.

None of her neighbors have spotted the worm.

How do you get rid of the worm?

The Texas Invasive Species Institute suggests spraying the worm with a home-made solution you can find here. ​

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