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Rat lungworm lab is denied funding

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    Richard Creagan:

    The Big Isle represen­tative is pressing colleagues to allocate funds to UH-Hilo

Budget chairwomen for the House and Senate allocated $1 million earlier this week to the state Department of Health to combat rat lungworm disease, but in doing so they diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars in hoped-for funding away from researchers at the University of Hawaii at Hilo who have been leading research into the disease and spearheading public education efforts.

Legislators representing Hawaii island, where the disease has been most prevalent, are now scrambling to salvage that funding as the Legislature barrels to a close. They face a deadline today to get the budget leaders to sign off on a bill that would provide at least some funding to UH-Hilo researchers led by Sue Jarvi.

Senate and House negotiators for the bill expressed increasing frustration during hearings Wednesday and Thursday as that approval still hadn’t come.

“The lab at UH Hilo that we are trying to get funded has done virtually all of the work to this date, virtually 100 percent,” said Sen. Russell Ruderman (D, Puna) during Wednesday’s conference committee hearing. “When DOH or anyone else wants to know is this slug a carrier, what is the treatment for that, it is the lab that has done the research and has the answers. And they have gone beyond research to do educational and prevention campaigns in the absence of anyone else doing it.”

The Health Department, which hadn’t requested the funding and doesn’t have a plan for using it, has at times clashed with Jarvi and her research team, who have criticized state officials for not paying more attention to the disease.

Rat lungworm disease, a condition in which parasitic worm larvae infect people’s brains, has existed in Hawaii for decades. But a recent uptick in confirmed cases has alarmed state lawmakers and drawn local and national media attention.

The disease can cause a painful and debilitating type of meningitis, long-term disabilities and, in some cases, death.

There have been a dozen confirmed cases in Hawaii so far this year, in addition to several probable cases.

Rep. Richard Creagan (D, Naalehu-Captain Cook-Keauhou) said that Hawaii has been lucky in that there haven’t been cases involving children but that it’s a growing threat.

“There certainly is an epidemic in the snails and rats, and if kids get it they often die,” said Creagan, who is also a physician. “We need to get this under control. We need to get the water safe, the vegetables safe, and (Jarvi) is the only person doing this research.”

Health Department officials have said that they were surprised by the $1 million allocation inserted into the state budget Monday.

“I think the Legislature recognized that this is an important threat that needs to be addressed now,” said Keith Kawaoka, deputy director of environmental health for the Health Department, noting that health officials are currently responding to cases of the disease on Hawaii island and Maui.

Kawaoka said it’s too early to determine how the funding would be used, but that educating the public about disease prevention is probably the best approach. The department is updating public educational materials and working on public-service announcements about the disease.

Asked whether a portion of the funding could go to UH-Hilo researchers, Kawaoka said that those discussions need to be had with legislators to determine how they wanted the money to be used.

Jarvi, who has been working on rat lungworm disease for five years, said her team is hoping to use state funding to research commercially available washes that could be used to kill the larvae; study whether the disease can be transmitted through slug-contaminated catchment water; monitor slug and snail populations for rat lungworm; and study whether the disease cycle can be broken by deworming rats.

“These are all important studies which would have been done with these funds,” said Jarvi by email. “We would like to know how the DOH will be spending our tax dollars and if they will be assisting the people of Hawaii island as well as Maui. Education is important but just telling people to wash their vegetables is not going to solve this problem. We will continue to see an increase in cases and people’s lives ruined unless we better understand this disease, and that can only happen through research.”

Neither Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, nor Rep. Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, who need to sign off on the bill directing funding to Jarvi’s research team, returned calls seeking comment.

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