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Second rat lungworm disease case on Big Island, state Health Department confirms

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Semi-slugs can carry thousands of rat lungworm parasites inside them at any given time.

A second person has contracted rat lungworm disease this year on Hawaii island.

The state Health Department confirmed the infection in an adult living in North Hawaii. Rat lungworm, or angiostrongyliasis, a potentially crippling illness that can cause severe headaches and stiffness in the neck can sometimes lead to neurological problems, severe pain and long-term disability.

The individual was hospitalized after becoming ill in January, but has since recovered, the DOH said.

The exact source of infection could not be determined, but health officials said the Big Island resident likely consumed a slug or snail by accident while eating produce from a home garden.

“In Hawaii, we need to treat all slugs and snails as if they are infected with the parasite that causes rat lungworm disease, and this means washing all produce no matter where it comes from, whether it’s from the grocery store, the farmer’s market or grown in our own home gardens and yards,” said Health Director Bruce Anderson in a news release. “Washing all produce carefully and thoroughly using clean, running water is the most effective way to remove unwanted slugs or snails from fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Health officials recently announced that a tourist vacationing in North Hawaii became ill in late December, and was diagnosed with the disease after returning to the mainland, bringing the statewide total to nine confirmed cases in 2018.

State health officials are meeting with the North Hawaii community next month to provide information about rat lungworm and how residents can protect themselves.

The disease is caused by a parasitic roundworm and can have debilitating effects on an infected person’s brain and spinal cord. Rats are the primary hosts, while snails and slugs are considered intermediate hosts that can hide in produce, water catchment systems and garden hoses unbeknownst to the victims who accidentally ingest them.

DOH recommends controlling the snail, slug and rat populations around homes, gardens and farms by clearing debris where they might live and using traps and bait. It also urges the public to inspect and wash fruits and vegetables with clean, running water before eating.

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