Saturday, October 25th, 2014
Half-True
Putnam
Says the giant African land snail "carries human meningitis."

Adam Putnam on Sunday, October 30th, 2011 in an interview on the CBS News show "Sunday Morning"

Ag chief Adam Putnam says Florida's giant snail 'carries human meningitis'

Officials rounded up giant African land snails in Miami-Dade County in September 2011. (Getty Images)

Florida is now home to a slime-oozing plant-chowing snail the size of a teacup Chihuahua, and Adam Putnam wants to make sure that's temporary.

The giant African land snail can grow up to 8 inches, live nearly a decade, devour indiscriminately, lay 500 eggs at a time and snack on stucco for the calcium to build its shiny brown shell striped with cream.

It's a backyard horror and an agricultural nightmare.

Putnam, the state's agriculture commissioner, also says it carries disease.

The 1,000-snail invasion of a South Florida neighborhood became news in mid September. It's the biggest outbreak reported since the 1960s, when the state spent $1 million over the course of a decade battling three smuggled-in snails of a Miami boy that became 18,000.

Last weekend, CBS News Sunday Morning featured the snails along with other invasive species, from Illinois' Asian carp (fish) to Georgia's kudzu (plant). Southwest Miami homeowners described the "disgusting," "slithery," "juicy" pests. Putnam explained the public threat.

"With something like the snails we've got the trifecta," Putnam said. "It carries human meningitis, so people are concerned. It eats 500 different plants, so agriculture's concerned. And it eats houses, so homeowners are very concerned."

Leaf- and stucco-chomping? Check. Just ask the snails' Miami neighbors. But disease-carrying? PolitiFact Florida decided to check it out.

About that disease: Your brain and spinal column are protected by membranes called meninges. When they get inflamed, that's meningitis. Often there's a bacteria or virus that causes the swelling, but you might also hit your head, get cancer or take certain drugs and end up with the illness. Or get a fungus. Or a parasite.

Around the world, giant African land snails are known for carrying a parasite, one that spends part of its life in rats, that can cause a rare form of meningitis. (Most people fully recover without treatment.) It's known as the rat lungworm, or Angiostrongylus cantonensis. Snails — and prawns and crabs and frogs — pick up baby rat lungworms from rat droppings. Other animals who chow down on tasty raw crab or frog legs or snail guts pick up the larvae and can end up with the brain infection. Animals can also get it from eating unwashed snail-slimed greens, or from rubbing snail mucus into their eyes or noses or mouths.

That group includes humans.

Who eats giant snails? Plenty of folks, if not so many in the United States. Just consider escargot, the tasty French preparation of smaller, corn-fed snails doused in butter, garlic and herbs. Their meatier big brothers are an important protein source in coastal Nigeria. You can order them in a New York restaurant for $10. But it's not cooked snails that are the problem — for the same reason most folks don't eat raw shrimp or raw meat in general, for that matter. You heat them first, to kill uninvited disease-causing guests. It's the undercooked or raw ones that can be a problem. And also other exposure to slime.

Take two cases of meningitis in Louisiana: In one, an 11-year-old boy had eaten a small raw snail on a dare. In another, a 22-year-old had eaten two raw legs from a green tree frog — also on a dare.

(Note to America's youth: Don't do dares!)

Then there is Florida's infamous case of giant snail slime exposure last year, where an African holy man poured the stuff into mouths of followers hoping for healing. Instead, they got violently ill — though not of meningitis.

In England, giant African land snails are novelty pets that live in terrariums and sometimes crawl on their owners.

Where's the meningitis worry?

Snails that don't have a chance to pick up baby rat lungworms can't give them to you. Pet snails that haven't lived in the wild don't carry the parasite, which require rats to complete their life cycle. No parasite-incubating rats, no rat lungworms. No snail-caused meningitis.

The parasite is found in snails in the South Pacific, Asia, Australia and the Caribbean. It shows up in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, with sightings in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Florida had its rat lungworm scare in 2003, when a gibbon at Miami Metrozoo suddenly fell ill. It could have been a sign the rat lungworm had made it into the state's rats, snails, frogs and shrimp. Or it could have simply been infected monkey food from overseas. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services dispatched a biologist, John Teem, to test snails around the zoo, said spokesman Sterling Ivey. He never found rat lungworm.

He's tested some of the state's apple snails — an invasive species   — and hasn't found rat lungworm.

This year, when the Southwest Miami neighbors started to notice their garden snails seemed larger and more prolific than normal, Teem tested those, too. Even in the giant African land snails, he didn't find rat lungworm.

The state health department doesn't track meningitis caused by the parasite. Neither do the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's exceedingly rare in the United States. Even in Hawaii, where the parasite's common, just five such cases in one year prompted academic study.

On Sunday, TV-watchers saw Putnam, the state's agricultural authority, warn them on national television about the snail's triple threat: house-eating, plant-devouring and disease-carrying. He didn't mention the disease hasn't been found in the state — and where it's been found in America, it's exceedingly rare. Or that to get it, you've got to eat a raw snail or get its mucus in your eyes or nose or eat unwashed snail-slimed produce.

Frequently, information sources point out that the giant African land snail can carry a meningitis-causing parasite. Putnam said, "We've got the trifecta," and said the snail "carries human meningitis." He leaves out some crucial details — most importantly, that the parasite that causes the disease hasn't yet been found in the state. And for that, we rate his statement Half True.