Ige lays out battle plan against rat lungworm

The Maui News

Gov. David Ige said Wednesday that the $1 million appropriated by the state Legislature to battle rat lungworm disease will be used for public awareness campaigns, to hire two temporary full-time workers to coordinate prevention efforts, to fund a study of vectors and to bring together local experts to explore ways to control and treat the disease.

At a news conference in Honolulu, Ige said the state plans to place a stronger emphasis on prevention of the disease, which has reached East Maui. Of the 15 confirmed cases statewide this year, which is the highest in more than a decade, four are Maui residents and two were Maui visitors.

In a related development, East Maui residents can pick up free metal pedal rat traps at the Council Services Office in Hana, said Jonathan Starr, whose foundation funded an initial free giveaway of 750 traps in April.

About two thirds of the 2,400 traps were left as of midweek last week, said Starr. The traps were donated by a Hana philanthropist, Susan Bradford and the Hawaii Community Foundation, he said.

Rats, slugs and snails are the vectors for the disease and spread the parasite Angiostrongylus cantonensis. The parasite can be passed from feces of infected rodents to snails and slugs, which become intermediate hosts. Humans contract the disease when ingesting raw or undercooked snails, slugs, freshwater prawns, frogs, crayfish and crabs or unwashed raw produce, such as leafy greens.

Some infected people don’t show any symptoms or have mild symptoms. For others, the symptoms can include headaches, stiffness of the neck, tingling or pain on the skin or in extremities, low-grade fever, nausea and vomiting. More serious symptoms include a temporary paralysis of the face, light sensitivity and a rare and serious type of meningitis (eosinophilic meningitis).

Ige said local experts will work with an existing joint task force, established last year to step up prevention efforts on the Big Island, where the outbreak began and remains the most prevalent. The task force, which will expand its reach statewide, will convene again this month with experts from the medical, scientific, environmental and public health fields.

They will work together to develop guidelines for schools, farms, food establishments and physicians on the best ways to prevent, control and treat rat lungworm disease, said Dr. Kenton Kramer, associate professor of the Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine, who is serving as chairman of the task force.

The two staffers, hired from the appropriation of $500,000 this and next fiscal years, will coordinate prevention efforts between county, state, federal and private sectors. In an example of agency collaboration, the Health Department’s food safety inspectors and vector control staff are collaborating with state Agriculture Department officials to investigate reports of produce shipments from local and Mainland farmers or vendors with an infestation of slugs or snails. If the shipment is traced to a local farm, inspectors will work with the farmer to ensure proper pest reduction measures are implemented, the governor said in a news release.

The Health Department will work with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Hawaii, state Agriculture Department and other agencies to conduct a first-of-its-kind targeted rat, slug and snail study to identify disease routes and to provide data on disease risks from these vectors. Findings from the study will guide vector control activities for rat lungworm prevention, the news release said.

In addition, the Health Department will work with the Hawaii Association of Broadcasters on a statewide media campaign to increase public awareness about the disease and its control and prevention.

Tips to prevent rat lungworm infection include:

• Always practice safe eating habits by inspecting, thoroughly washing and properly storing raw produce, especially leafy greens, regardless of where it came from, and/or cooking it properly to kill any parasites. Washing raw vegetables and fruits thoroughly under running water before eating not only prevents rat lungworm but also rinses off other contaminants.

• Eliminate snails, slugs and rats around residential home gardens and agricultural operations.

• Prevent the consumption of snails and slugs by covering all containers, from water catchment tanks to drink containers and food dishes. Supervise young children while playing outdoors to prevent them from putting a slug or snail in their mouths.

For more information on preventing rat lungworm disease, go to the Health Department website at www.health.hawaii.gov.