Four probable cases of rat lungworm infection have been detected on the Big Island.
Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported Friday the cases are disturbing because the disease is usually found during the winter season.
East Hawaii epidemiological specialist Marlena Dixon says rat lungworm is a parasite that causes a rare form of meningitis and is difficult to diagnose because of a wide array of symptoms.
Symptoms can include severe headaches, nausea, vomiting, neck stiffness and numbness.
In a severe 2009 case former Big Island resident Graham McCumber spent three months in a coma.
Dixon says the disease can be contracted when people mistakenly eat small slugs on the surface of leafy green vegetables.
Slugs and snails become carriers when they eat feces of rats carrying the parasite.
Posted: Feb. 4, 2010
A cluster of recent cases of disease in Hawai’i caused by eating fresh produce contaminated with snails or slugs infected with the nematode parasite Angiostrongylus cantonensis, the rat lungworm, has drawn attention to this foodborne threat, which can cause eosinophilic meningitis. A publication on preventive measures to reduce spread of rat lungworm infection on farms is now available from the UH Mānoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR).
According to the publication by authors from CTAHR, the UH Pacific Biosciences Research Center, and USDA, slugs and snails become infected with rat lungworm in two ways. Most commonly, the slug or snail will eat contaminated rat feces. Less commonly, the nematode burrows into the slug or snail through the body wall or enters through a respiratory pore when the animal comes into close contact with the contaminated feces. Other vectors of infection include frogs, freshwater shrimp, and land crabs.