Concern grows after cases of brain-invading parasite increases in Hawaii

MAUI, HI (KHON) — Eight possible cases of rat lungworm disease have been reported in Hawaii and health department officials worry that number could rise.

There are four confirmed cases of rat lungworm disease on Maui.

Two people who got sick live on Maui and two others were visitors to the state, but that tally could rise, as the health department revealed it’s also looking into four other possible cases of rat lungworm disease on Maui.

The disease known as rat lungworm is spread by snails or slugs that ingest rat feces containing parasite larvae. Humans can contract it by eating the infected snail or slug, or even just its residue on tainted, unwashed vegetables, primarily leafy produce like lettuce.

A bill is currently making its way through the legislature that would fund programs to study, prevent, and hopefully eradicate the disease.

State epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park says she cannot say exactly how many cases of rat lungworm there are until the Department of Health completes its investigation and gets a full assessment.

The most recent confirmed case has left Tricia Mynar learning to walk again. Although she lives on Maui, she says she contracted the parasite while on Hawaii Island.

In February, Mynar traveled to Hawaii Island for work. She believes she ate a salad that started it all.

“I’m a mom of three. (Childbirth) was like eating ice cream compared to this,” she said. “The level of pain, the majority of it is in your head. The pain is just excruciating.”

Meanwhile, Park says, we can all reduce the risk of contracting the disease by thoroughly washing our leafy greens.

She also says the human body is not a good host for these parasites, and that as soon as they attack our brain and nervous system, they begin starving and dying — but not before causing great pain.

“If you could imagine, it’s like having a slow-moving bullet go through your brain and there’s no rhyme or reason why it’s going to hang out in this part of the brain or that part of the brain,” Park said.

Depending what part of the brain the parasite lodges itself in, the symptoms can range accordingly.

“Your skin sensation could be affected. It could be that it affects how you walk; it could affect how you talk, whether you are able to move your hands. It could make you comatose. It could kill you,” Park said. “Until they die, they continue to cause a lot of damage.”

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