State epidemiologist describes rat lungworm as ‘slow-moving bullet’ through brain

We’re learning more about a parasite that left a Maui woman so sick, she describes the pain she felt as being worse than childbirth.

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.

It’s a growing concern statewide.

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.

What she can say is that it’s concerning.

“It averages probably at max maybe 10 cases per year, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less,” she said. “The majority of the cases that we do hear about tend to be on the Big Island. Every so often we might hear of a case and confirm a case on one of the other islands.”

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.

Park says it’s difficult to understand why most of the cases originate on Hawaii Island as the risk for the disease exists equally statewide.

She says the state is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to better understand how to battle the parasite.

Meanwhile, Park says, we can all reduce the risk of contracting the disease by thoroughly washing our leafy greens. Learn more about the recommended way to wash them here.

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.”

Click here for more information on rat lungworm disease from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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