Giant snail carrying meningitis parasite forces Florida county into quarantine

The giant snails are a threat to public safety as well as agriculture. Credit: AP

Huge snails that can carry a parasite causing meningitis have forced residents of a county in Florida into quarantine while authorities vow to “eradicate” the garden invaders.

Growing up to as long as eight inches, the giant African land snails can eat through plaster, consumes hundreds of different plants and carry disease.

Neighbourhoods in Pasco County, just north of the Tampa Bay area, have been banned from moving snails or soil while the molluscs dubbed the “most damaging snails in the world” are cut down.

“We will eradicate these snails, we've done it before and we will do it again,” said Nikki Fried, commissioner of the State Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know

The snails have been found in numerous parts of the world such as Hawaii and parts of the Caribbean, including in Cuba, where an effort is ongoing to rid the island of the pests.

They are known to eat 500 different plant types, making them a major threat to agriculture, including peanuts, beans, cucumbers and melons.

They will also eat plaster in buildings, tree bark, and carry a parasite called the rat lungworm that can cause meningitis in humans. And they breed at an astonishing rate – with up to 1,200 eggs a year.

Ms Fried said people should definitely shy away from the snails and warned they are not the type one finds in the French delicacy escargot.

“This is not something you want to touch, it is not something you want to eat,” said Ms Fried, a Democrat who is also running for governor this year.

Florida has twice before eradicated the creatures in other parts of the state, most recently a ten-year effort in Miami-Dade County that cost $23 million (£19.1 million) and ended in 2021 after collection of around 170,000 snails.

Snails caught during the infestation in Miami-Dade County. Credit: AP

Now they are back again, most likely as a result of the illegal international exotic pet trade or arriving hidden in cargo from overseas.

Greg Hodges, assistant director of the state Division of Plant Industry, said it is illegal to import or possess giant African land snails in Florida without a permit.

It is also illegal to move them from a quarantined area, such as the one in Pasco County, or to take away other material in the area such as soil, yard waste or building materials without state approval.

Around 1,000 snails have already been collected in the quarantine area, Mr Hodges said.

Anyone who spots a snail should not touch it, but instead call 888-397-1517 to report the find.

The homes involved will be treated with a molluscicide bait and snails are being collected by state workers aided by dogs trained to sniff them out.