PUNA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - A debilitating and potentially deadly disease is spreading fear through the Puna district on Hawaii Island. The state health department has confirmed one current case of 'rat lungworm' disease in Hawaii, but there may be more.
38 of the 42 reported cases of 'rat lungworm' statewide since 2007 has happened on Hawai'i Island. It has become such a concern that the University of Hawai'i at Hilo is hosting a presentation on Wednesday night to educate the public about disease prevention.
'Rat lungworm' disease, or angiostrongylus, is a parasite that is carried by rats and transferred to humans by slugs or flatworms. Experts say the most likely culprit is contaminated produce.
"It's infective to rats, but it's also infective to humans and dogs -- and we've had a lot of cases in horses that have had to be put down because the slug or possibly even the slime trail from the slug or snail is infected," explained UH Hilo College of Pharmacy Researcher Dr. Susan Jarvi during a sit-down with Big Island Video News in March.
The parasite has been the topic of discussion at several town hall meetings on Hawai'i Island -- including one on February 18 with U.S. Senator Brian Schatz.
"Hawai'i is the epicenter for rat lungworm disease in the United States. It's generally assumed that most people become infected via accidental ingestion of an infected slug or snail on produce, however the majority of victims here don't really know how they were infected," described Kay Howe, whose son was infected in 2008 and is still recovering.
Officials say the parasite travels through the bloodstream to the brain and can cause devastating health problems.
Phoenix Roewe lives in Pahoa. He believes he may have been infected by syphoning water out of his catchment tank with a hose.
"I would try to smile and one side of my face would be limp so my face and cheek would rise my eye was kind of drowsy as well. It got pretty bad. I'd be up all night and like just unbearable pain until like four in the morning. I just can't even sleep -- all night I'm throbbing," described Roewe. "I feel like I got pretty lucky though, it could of been worse it could of been better -- but compared to others I'm so lucky."
Health officials say early detection is key, but diagnosis can be complicated.
"I've probably treated a dozen or so patients and everybody presents with different symptoms," Hilo Medical Center hospitalist Dr. Jon Martel told Big Island Video News.
Symptoms can range from flu-like conditions to completely debilitating nerve pain -- and at least one person has recently died.
The State Department of Health has been tracking the disease since 2007 and now has information available on
"Every now and then we do health advisories in the local newspaper. We don't want to cause panic so we don't continuously print it, but we do but prevention methods in there along with the advisory," the state Health Department's Marlena Dixon explained to Big Island Video News.
Officials say 'rat lungworm' is a completely preventable disease, if people thoroughly wash all their fruits and vegetables.
The University of Hawai'i at Hilo Faculty Congress and the College of Continuing Education and Community Services is hosting a public presentation with Dr. Susan Jarvi, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy, on Wednesday, April 15, 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. in UCB Room 100.
For more information, click