You may think you can avoid coming into contact with the New Guinea flatworm by simply not visiting New Guinea, but the critter is closer to home than you might guess. Per the Palm Beach Post, the potentially deadly parasite is proliferating throughout South Florida, slithering from where it was first spotted in Miami all the way over to Cape Coral on the southwest coast. It's a cause for concern, since once a rat eats one of these invasive invertebrates—dark worms with a thin orange stripe down their back, Lee County agricultural expert Roy Beckford tells WFTX—the rodent can then pass on a slew of spinal, lung, and brain diseases, including meningitis, to humans. Even if residents live in relatively rat-free areas, the worm is still a hazard: Beckford explains that those who touch it can suffer skin problems "because it actually vomits up this caustic substance." "This is very serious," he notes.
Indigenous to the South Pacific, the flatworms likely showed up first in the Miami area last year with shipments of tropical fruit and plants. It's now believed that they've been in the Cape Coral area since September, though no one knew what they were. The New Guinea flatworms, with no natural predators to take them out, are also a menace to the environment, capable of causing damage to local flora and other small fauna like snails. Although the worms can reportedly be killed by dousing them with boiling water, Beckford says residents who spot one should take a photo and contact the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 888-IVE-GOT1. (A parasite in cat poop could make you rage.)