State launches media campaign to quell rat lungworm
The state Health Department has started its first statewide media campaign to prevent rat lungworm disease, following the most recent case involving a Hilo resident who contracted the virus after drinking from a water hose.
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The state Health Department has started its first statewide media campaign to prevent rat lungworm disease, following the most recent case involving a Hilo resident who contracted the illness after drinking from a water hose.
Department of Health officials suspect the Big Island patient accidentally ingested an infected slug from a garden hose in late November. The $300,000 campaign will include a series of television and radio announcements urging people to wash their fruits and vegetables before eating them to avoid contracting the potentially debilitating disease, which affects the brain and spinal cord.
“It is important to note that we are not experiencing an outbreak of rat lungworm disease,” said Anna Koethe, a DOH spokeswoman. “An outbreak implies either person-to-person spread or a common source of infection. Except for the kava-related event on Hawaii island earlier this year, all of the cases have been sporadic and unrelated.”
|PRECAUTIONS TO PREVENT THE DISEASE
>> Wash produce, especially raw fruits and vegetables, thoroughly under clean and potable water before eating.
>> Cook food completely by boiling for 3 to 5 minutes or heating to 165 degrees for 15 seconds.
>> Store food and drinks in sealed containers, particularly when outdoors.
>> Control and eliminate rats, slugs and snails around the home and garden.
>> Inspect water catchment tanks regularly and always keep them covered.
>> Keep children away from areas with slugs and snails.
>> Do not drink from the garden hose.
Source: State Department of Health
Six residents who drank kava were hospitalized for the disease in April.
There have been 18 laboratory-confirmed cases statewide this year. The Big Island has seen the most cases at 11, followed by Maui at six — including two tourists — and Oahu at one. Waimanalo farmer Nick Booth is still recovering from the illness.
State officials have been grappling with how to control rats, snails, slugs and the relatively new semi-slug — 75 percent of which are estimated to carry the disease. The worms can cause significant damage as they travel through the body and attack nerve endings.
“The Health Department unfortunately doesn’t view the rat lung disease as an emergency, which I believe it is,” said state Rep. Richard Creagan (D, Naalehu), a physician and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. “To say that you can make food safe by washing it is, unfortunately, not true. It will make it safer but not safe. What they’re missing is a huge epidemic probably 10 to 100 times what they’re recognizing. Basically they’re trying to minimize a problem that has serious consequences for health, agriculture and for tourism. It’s egregious.”
The Legislature earlier this year granted the Health Department $1 million over the next two years to control the spread of rat lungworm. That includes public education announcements on 40 radio stations and seven television stations, as well as in movie theaters through January.
The department has also installed posters in shopping centers statewide reminding consumers to wash their produce and to control rats, slugs and snails around their homes and gardens.
“The risk of rat lungworm disease is present on all islands and there are basic steps we can take each day to reduce this risk and help prevent infection,” Keith Kawaoka, deputy director of environmental health, said in a news release. “Knowledge is the best defense we can provide people with to collectively protect our communities from rat lungworm disease in Hawaii.”
The state is working with local experts to develop guidelines for schools, farms, food establishments, physicians and other groups on how best to prevent rat lungworm disease.
For more information, go to the Department of Health website.