The Rat Lungworm Task Force

Dec 27, 2017

Semi slug on nickel
Credit Marlena Dixon / State Department of Health

The State Department of Health has created a Rat Lungworm Task Force to look at this daunting disease. Also known as angiostrongyliasis, it is a concern for people throughout the state.  It causes severe pain, brain swelling, and often, ongoing neurological problems. Hawai'i Island contributing reporter Sherry Bracken talked to members of the Task Force to find out what they know about some of the most frequently asked questions about the disease.

Members of the Rat Lungworm Task Force include professors at the John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawai'i faculty, and other government officials. Dr. Jon Martell of Hilo Medical Center and Dr. Susan Jarvi of UH Hilo College of Pharmacy are also on the task force. Dr. Kenton Kramer of the John A. Burns School of Medicine is the chair.

“The purpose is to look at scientifically based evidence for the prevention and control of rat lungworm disease. We have formed two subcommittees, one to look at best practices for educating the public, and the second to look at clinical management of rat lungworm disease.”

The public is concerned with how this disease is transmitted. Ingesting the very tiny semi slugs, which can hide on produce, or eating other carriers, is one way. But there may be others. Dr. Kramer:

“Water is one possible means of transmission. If catchment were involved in transmission, you’d expect to see clusters of cases within families, and we haven’t seen that yet, but we want to continue investigating the possible role of water and catchment systems.”

Another question is whether the slug or snail slime can spread rat lungworm.

“Although larvae are released in the slime, the number is very low, so you probably have to eat quite a bit of slime in order to get an infectious dose that would cause a clinical disease.”

Dr. Susan Jarvi and Dr. Jon Martell
Credit Sherry Bracken

Prevention is a key concern.

“The best way to wash leafy greens was investigated by Robert Cowie’s group at University of Hawai'i at Manoa. The very best way was to pull the leaves apart and wash them under fast running water. There was no advantage to using a wash solution in his studies. The Department of Agriculture has put out a very good video on the proper washing of fruits and vegetables.”

Rat lungworm cases have now spread to southern states and Europe. The task force members say they expect with climate change, the disease will continue to spread.