Rat lungworm is small but mighty foe
Rat lungworm disease became a common phrase appearing on the evening news, in the local papers and uttered throughout Maui in anxious conversations. This disease is caused by a parasitic worm, specifically called Angiostrongylus cantonensis.
This little worm may be small, but it is mighty. In fact, this worm has caused significant pain and suffering to a handful of Maui residents and visitors since the beginning of 2017.
Humans can get this disease if they accidentally eat a slug with infectious worms inside of it. To make matters more complicated, other types of animals, such as land crabs, frogs, lizards and crayfish, can also carry the nasty little worms and infect humans. Rats carry the worm as well, but humans cannot contract the disease from rats or other rodents. In addition, humans cannot pass this disease directly to one another.
This illness in humans may include headaches, neck pain, vomiting, tingly or painful skin, slight fever, brain swelling (meningitis) or other nervous system dysfunctions. Currently, there is no cure for this disease, but there is supportive care for pain and inflammation.
With this knowledge of rat lungworm disease biology, it becomes clear which steps must be taken to avoid the sickness. Since rats and slugs are both required for the worm’s life cycle, practicing proper pest control is recommended. Efforts to control the rat population can include trapping and thoroughly cleaning your home and yard so rats are discouraged from nesting.
To address the slug concerns, residents can trap, properly dispose of slugs, and use barrier methods to keep slugs away from gardens. Both rats and slugs enjoy eating dog and cat food, so it’s recommended to not leave pet food outside. The semi-slug may be a particularly effective carrier of the parasite, so this slug should be treated with extra caution and control. Humans may unintentionally consume a slug from fresh produce, so before eating, all produce must be properly washed and cared for.
As a healthy staple of a well-balanced diet, fresh produce should not be avoided because of fears about rat lungworm disease. This particular disease can be well-controlled by properly washing and rubbing produce with running tap water, or by boiling and cooking food (boil three to five minutes or to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit). Resident are encouraged to continue buying local produce, to always practice the safe preparation techniques, and enjoy the benefits of eating food grown close to home.
The Maui community showed a powerful collective response to this worrisome disease. Joint efforts are being carried on between the Maui District Health Office, Office of the Mayor, Maui Invasive Species Committee, UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, Department of Agriculture, School Garden Network, Maui County Farm Bureau, Hawaii Farmers Union United, Bishop Museum Malacology Department, UH-Hilo School of Pharmacy and UH-Manoa Pacific Bioscience Research Center. Community meetings have been held in seven communities in Maui County. Please contact the Department of Health if you would like a presentation to your group, club or business.
The Maui Invasive Species Committee developed a program which allows for Maui residents to contribute information to a research survey for semi-slugs and other possible parasite carriers. These responding organizations want to hear from you! Please visit mauiinvasive.org/slug to contribute information that will be used to make Maui a safer place.
The community’s support and participation are vital to the control of this disease. We encourage you to eliminate rodents, slugs and snails, stay informed, care and wash for your produce and continue to buy locally. For more information, visit mauiready.org/ratlungworm and ctahr.hawaii.edu.
Mahalo nui loa for your efforts and support to keep Maui a safe and healthy place.
* Sara Routley is an emergency preparedness health educator for the Maui District Health Office.