WAILUKU, Hawaii — Maui health officials said six cases of rat lungworm disease have been reported on the island over the past three months, while the island has seen only two cases of the disease in the past decade.
Three of the cases have been confirmed, while a seventh case involves a Maui woman who believes she contracted the parasite on the Big Island, Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang said Tuesday.
Rat lungworm disease is a condition in which parasitic worm larvae infect people’s brains. It is carried by rats and transmitted by snails and slugs.
Officials say residents can reduce the risk of contracting the potentially life-threatening disease by thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables before consumption.
Experts are still determining the best way to get rid of the invasive slugs, Pang said. Smashing, burying or burning them does not deter rats from eating them and restarting the cycle of rat lungworm.
“The slug is easy to kill, but the parasite; it’s not so easy,” he said.
State epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said there is an average of about 10 rat lungworm cases each year statewide and that the recent spike is concerning. A vast majority of Hawaii’s cases are reported on the Big Island.
The infection can cause a rare type of meningitis that triggers severe headaches and stiffness of the neck, tingling or painful feelings in the skin or extremities, fever, nausea and vomiting, according to the state Department of Health Disease Investigation Branch. Temporary paralysis of the face and light sensitivity may also occur.
“If you could imagine, it’s like having a slow-moving bullet go through your brain and there’s no rhyme or reason why it’s going to hang out in this part of the brain or that part of the brain,” Park said.