KAILUA-KONA >> The state Department of Agriculture is urging consumers to simply wash their vegetables in hopes of guarding against the threat of rat lungworm disease.
The disease is believed to have been present in Hawaii for at least a half-century, but 16 confirmed cases in 2017 have caused “a somewhat hysterical reaction,” according to John McHugh, administrator of the Agriculture Department’s Plant Industry Division.
Wholesalers and retailers on Maui have been hit hard with cases of the disease, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported Monday.
“Some of those farmers that grow that kind of produce, lettuces and cabbages, have been hit really hard, especially on Maui,” McHugh said. “I understand some affected farmers are switching crops to something that’s not normally eaten raw. That way they get away from the potential stigma of rat lungworm disease being associated with raw produce.”
Rat lungworm disease is caused by a parasite found in rodents, which can pass the parasite to snails, slugs, crabs and other animals.
The disease affects the brain and spinal cord, and can cause nausea, vomiting, severe pain and temporary paralysis. Symptoms last weeks or months.
Hawaii island resident Sonny Saradpon said he and his wife buy local despite the threat and also cultivate their own garden in Hilo.
“The main thing you have to do is just inspect and prep your food well,” Saradpon said.
Maureen Datta is co-owner and operator of Adaptions Inc., a food hub on Hawaii island that buys from local growers and sells wholesale to every level of the food industry across the state. The company also supplies 125 families directly with produce.
Datta said the media craze around rat lungworm over the past few months has fueled whatever undue fear exists among Hawaii island consumers.
“I think that educating people is important, but scaring people is not because it just paralyzes them, and it can really hurt our industry,” Datta said.