Hilo lab secures state funding to fight rat lungworm disease

HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - For the first time, a lab at the University of Hawaii at Hilo that is helping to combat rat lungworm disease, will be getting a reliable source of state funding.

Researchers tried to secure money for research in 2017, but lawmakers ended up providing $1 million in funding to the state Department of Health instead.

Before wrapping up their latest session, legislators allocated $300,000 in recurring funding in the state budget for rat lungworm disease research and other programs at the UH Hilo College of Pharmacy. Most of the money will go to a lab run by Sue Jarvi.

"One thing people keep asking us is, 'How can we treat our vegetables?' and so one of the major studies I'd like to be able to do is to look at different physical and chemical treatments," said Jarvi, a UH professor.

Jarvi also wants to expand studies they've been doing to develop a blood test as an alternative to the spinal tap doctors currently use to diagnose the disease.

"I personally have half a dozen friends that have been seriously impacted by this disease and that's one of the reasons that it's so important to me," said state Sen. Russell Ruderman (D - Puna, Kau). "If you get a bad case of rat lungworm, it affects the rest of your life."

The DOH has spent about $600,000 of the $1 million that it received from lawmakers last year on outreach and education efforts. Two patient support groups at the Hilo Medical Center are also getting funding. In addition, the department set aside $250,000 for a statewide survey to determine who's at the most risk.

"This will be a population survey asking people about their dietary habits, their outdoor activities, the use of catchment water, things like that," explained DOH director Dr. Virginia Pressler.

There were 18 confirmed cases in Hawaii in 2017, according to the state. So far this year, 3 people have been diagnosed with the illness.

Governor Ige still needs to sign off on the state budget in order for the funds to be released to UH Hilo.

"A lot of times, people can get very frustrated with government and maybe that we move a little bit slowly, but I do think that this is an example of everyone coming together, recognizing a challenge and taking it on really strong," said state Rep. Chris Todd (D - Keaukaha, Panaewa, Waiakea).

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