MANOA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Previous studies aimed at determining the risk of rat lungworm disease to Hawaii communities have focused on rats.
But humans don't typically get rat lungworm disease from rats. They're more likely to get it by accidentally ingesting a tiny slug or snail on produce.
That's why a new study from University of Hawaii researchers focused on snails and slugs, screening about 1,300 of the animals from 37 species found at 200 sites across the Hawaiian Islands.
The study's conclusion: Rat lungworm — the parasitic nematode that can make people sick — is widespread in snails and slugs in the islands.
"The team determined rat lungworm was present in numerous species of snails and slugs on five of the six largest islands," the University of Hawaii said, in a news release on the study.
Researchers say the disease could in fact be present on all islands, but it may not have been detected.
UH Professor Robert Cowie, senior author of the study, said the study's conclusions underscore the growing risk of rat lungworm disease to humans.
"Local residents and visitors need to know what the risks are," Cowie said. "People must not be complacent."
From 1961 to 2017, there were 123 cases of rat lungworm disease in Hawaii. But 19 of those cases were confirmed in 2017 alone.
The first case of someone on Oahu getting sick was reported in May, when a toddler fell ill.
Rat lungworm affects the brain and spinal cord. The disease causes a rare type of meningitis. Some people have no or mild symptoms. Others can become violently ill.