As of late April 2017, the Hawaiʻi Department of Health had confirmed 13 cases of rat lungworm disease since the start of the year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the parasitic worm (Angiostrgonylus cantonensis) can invade the central nervous system and cause a rare form of meningitis.
The University of Hawaiʻi is addressing rat lungworm in diverse ways across the island state, including assessing its distribution statewide, determining which species of snails and slugs can carry it, doing experiments to determine the best ways to wash produce to keep it safe and undertaking extensive educational and outreach efforts.
Six UH faculty members serve on the Governor’s Task Force on Rat Lungworm Disease, established in 2016, and reflect a wide range of expertise.
- Robert Cowie, malacology, UH Mānoa Pacific Biosciences Research Center
- William L. Gosnell, immunology, UH Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine
- Susan Jarvi, pharmaceutical science, UH Hilo, Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy
- Kenton Kramer, parasitology, UH Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine
- Marian Melish, pediatrics, UH Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine
- F. DeWolfe Miller, IV, epidemiology, UH Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine
As the name implies, the rat lungworm is a parasite only of rats and a few other rodents. Infected rats pass the larvae of the parasite in their feces, which are then eaten by snails and slugs. Humans are accidental hosts who do not transmit infection to others, but can become infected by eating raw infected snails or slugs (or parts of them), which are often accidentally left on produce that has not been sufficiently washed.
“Rat lungworm is a horrible disease and we need to work collaboratively and collegially with all to do the best for the people of Hawaiʻi,” said UH President David Lassner.
Resources for education and prevention
The State Department of Health and UH have a range of resources on rat lungworm available online. Some of these include:
- Angiostrongyliasis (Rat Lungworm Disease), State of Hawaiʻi, Department of Health
- Rat Lungworm Disease—A Scientific Workshop, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, 16–18 August 2011, Robert Cowie and Jim Hollyer organizers.
- Avoid Contracting Angiostroyngyliasis (Rat Lungworm Infection): Wash Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Before Eating! (PDF), UH Mānoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR)
- Best On-Farm Food Safety Practices: Reducing Risks Associated with Rat Lungworm Infection and Human Eosincophilic Meningitis (PDF), UH Mānoa CTAHR
- Student and Food Safety: Best Practices for Hawaiʻi School Gardens (PDF), UH Mānoa CTAHR
“Prevention of rat lungworm disease is a statewide priority and the Department of Health is working with partners from federal, state and county agencies as we continue our investigation of reported cases,” said Health Director Virginia Pressler. “The University of Hawaiʻi has been a valuable partner in our efforts to learn more about this rare and serious disease.”
—By Kelli Trifonovitch