Researchers make potential breakthrough in fight against rat lungworm disease

A potential breakthrough in the fight against Rat Lungworm disease.
Published: Feb. 8, 2023 at 7:41 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 9, 2023 at 9:03 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In the Jarvi Lab at the University of Hawaii Hilo, Dr. Susan Jarvi and graduate research assistant John Jacob have made a potential breakthrough in the fight against rat lungworm disease.

They say their latest findings are eye-opening and go against a widely held belief that using anti-parasitic drugs is potentially harmful to patients.

Their research revolves around the drug Albendazole which is used to treat infections caused by worms — but it’s controversial because Hawaii physicians fear it could harm a patient’s brain.

“The theory suggests that if we kill the parasite in the brain, that would trigger a more intense inflammatory response in the brain, and that would cause a lot more complications. However, this is just theoretical. There was not enough evidence to say this is factual,” said John Jacob.

They researched 144 published papers documenting the results of more than 1,000 Rat Lungworm patients were treated with Albendazole.

The papers were from 23 countries where Rat Lungworm is found.

“The discovery was shocking even for us because the great majority is suggesting that Albendazole is safe and effective,” said John Jacob.

The State Health Department doesn’t endorse medications, but State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said Jacob’s findings are promising.

“I think the improving safety data, which is one of the initial concerns about Albendazole, helps to relieve some of those anxieties that it might cause harm,” said Dr. Sarah Kemble.

Over the past 10 years, Hawaii has had 78 confirmed cases of Rat Lungworm, a disease most often caused by eating unwashed produce contaminated by the slime of infected snails and slugs.

The condition affects the brain and spinal cord.

In 2017, 20 people came down with Rat Lungworm. Last year there were only two cases.

“But it’s not that the risk has disappeared. The parasite is still found in hosts throughout the islands, statewide,” said DOH Disease Outbreak Control Division, David Johnston.

Even if the deworming drug were to be widely recommended by physicians in Hawaii, it still lacks FDA approval for treating Rat Lungworm.

Plus, the pills are expensive, and the state doesn’t stockpile the drug.

“The drug is safe. It’s very safe,” Jacob says and he urges doctors and decision-makers to take a serious look at his findings on Albendazole.

“We have all those papers in very reputed journals, but that’s just staying there; that’s not getting converted into policy.”

He hopes that will be the next step.