Rat traps to be handed out at taro festival

Groups unite to help community get control of rat lungworm disease

With worries about rat lungworm disease in the East Maui community, the Kaupo Community Association and the Jonathan Starr Foundation will be sponsoring a free rat trap giveaway during the East Maui Taro Festival on Saturday at the Hana Ballpark.

Rats are a vector in the spread of the disease and host the worm in their system. Their feces are consumed by slugs, especially the invasive semi-slug, which contaminates vegetables and water ingested by humans. The parasite also can be spread by eating raw or undercooked snails, prawns and freshwater crabs.

The worm attacks the brain and spinal cord and can cause a rare type of meningitis. Victims report that it starts with flulike symptoms and mushrooms into terrible and debilitating pain throughout their bodies.

There have been six confirmed rat lungworm cases on Maui this year, four resident cases and two nonresident cases, Janice Okubo, the state Health Department’s spokeswoman, said Wednesday. Three cases that were under investigation last week have been ruled out, she said.

To help stem the spread of the disease, a group consisting of Starr, his foundation, Helen Nielsen, President Linda Clark and the Kaupo Community Association and state Sen. Kalani English have purchased 750 Victor Metal Pedal Rat Traps, “all we could locate in the state,” for distribution at the festival, said Starr. Those are spring-loaded traps.

Starr’s foundation is providing the traps, which cost $2.27 each, because it was the quickest method to secure them, he said. English is picking up the traps from stores around Oahu, flying them over, driving them out and helping to hand them out. The group could only find 80 traps on Maui.

The booth in the community/nonprofit/educational tent will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

“This is just the first step,” said Starr. “We would like to help break the rat lungworm chain, which requires rats and crustaceans, such as slugs and snails. We are talking with Dr. Lorrin Pang from Hawaii Department of Health, to implement his suggestions.

“At this point, it is very grass roots and a learning process.”

If the trap distribution is successful and people seem enthusiastic about baiting and putting them out around Hana, Starr said that he and the others will look to obtain larger donors to ship in larger quantities of traps.

There are a lot of rats this year.

“This spring, we and our cats have seen and caught more large rats than at any time over the past 25 years,” Starr said.

State Health Department vector control staff has been conducting site visits and inspections of homes of confirmed cases of the disease, said Okubo.

In addition to vector control, the Health Department has been holding informational meetings on Maui that have attracted more than 100 people, distributing printed materials and calling news conferences as needed to inform the public about new cases, said Okubo.

The Health Department currently is working on television public service announcements to begin airing in May; the Department of Agriculture also is working on PSAs for TV and radio, she said.

To the “surprise” of Health Department officials, the state Legislature has included $1 million in the proposed budget awaiting passage by the House and Senate to fight rat lungworm disease, Okubo said.

“We greatly appreciate the funds recently provided by our state Legislature and will work to ensure the funds are used effectively to respond to and prevent the disease,” she said.

“The Department of Health just learned of the legislative funding this week and is determining how best to use the funds for our response and public information efforts,” she continued. “This came as a surprise to us, and we have not seen the details of the legislative intent for the funding.”

Okubo said that legislators have expressed concern to the department about increasing public education and outreach, “so much of the funding may go toward those efforts.” The funds would become available to the department in July.

She said that the department will work with the counties and other organizations to educate and prevent the disease.

“We will be talking with the legislators, the counties, and various organizations to determine how best to use the funds,” Okubo said.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.


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