A slug is seen on a finger of a gardener in a park in London, Britain April 29, 2016.
A slug is seen on a finger of a gardener in a park in London, Britain April 29, 2016. Reuters/Peter Nicholls

A simple dare had turned a teenage rugby player into a paraplegic. Sam Ballard from Sydney’s north shore was just 19 years old when he swallowed a garden slug as a dare from his friends in 2010.

But unknown to him and to his friends at that time, the slug he ate would drastically alter his life. He fell ill and was taken to Royal North Shore Hospital, where he was told he was infected with rat lungworm, News.com.au reports.

The slug was carrying the rat lungworm or the roundworm parasite Angiostrongylus cantonensis. Although it is typically carried by rats, it can also infect slugs and snails that eat rat faeces. And people who eat infected snails or slugs that are undercooked can also be infected.

When Ballard swallowed the slug, it led to a parasitic infection, causing a serious brain injury and subsequently leaving him paralysed from the neck down. He fell into a coma for 420 days and became a quadriplegic.

His mother Katie Ballard had hoped he would “walk and talk again” in 2011. He was released in a motorised wheelchair from the hospital three years after he first fell ill.

“It’s devastated, changed his life forever, changed my life forever,” Katie told the news site. “It’s huge. The impact is huge.”

At 28, Ballard suffers seizers and cannot control his body temperature. He also has to be tube-fed.

Ballard’s friends have raised money for his 24/7 care, but that still wasn’t enough. Katie applied to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) when he became eligible for a $492,000 package in 2006. But she said the NDIS texted her to say that it had slashed his allocation to just about $135,000. The massive slash means the family are put heavily in debt. They owe a nursing service $42,000.

It was not clarified why the NDIS made the funding cut. The government-run agency told the Daily Telegraph that it had been “working closely” with the family to find a resolution and increase Ballard’s support package.

Rat lungworm infection

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, Angiostrongylus cantonensis, or rat lungworm, only affects rodents in the adult form of the parasite. However, rats pass larvae of the parasite in their faeces, which snails and slugs eat. And this is how snails and slugs get infected.

People can get infected with Angiostrongylus cantonensis, but they usually recover fully without treatment. Some infected people also don’t have symptoms or have only mild ones that don’t last very long. Sometimes, the infection causes eosinophilic meningitis. But again, many people who contracted it usually don’t need antibiotics as the parasite dies over time without treatment.

Ballard contracted and seemed to be recovering from eosinophilic meningitis in the early days of his infection, but he lapsed into a coma after.