As more cases of rat lungworm disease emerge, Maui farms scramble to cope

Updated: Apr. 11, 2017 at 7:28 PM HST
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The sudden increase in rat lungworm disease cases on Maui is already hitting some farm sales hard, and spurring growers to look for new ways to protect their crops from contamination.

HANA, MAUI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Sales of produce and salads at Hana Fresh have plummeted by 50 percent due to concerns about the illness.

Two weeks ago, a team from the Hawaii Health Department inspected the organic farm, kitchen, and farm stand, which are all operated by the community's health center.

"We're maintaining vigilance," said Cheryl Vasconcellos, executive director of Hana Health. "We have since we started the operation and we feel confident that we're offering a safe product."

Meanwhile, Mahele Farm, a 10-acre community garden in Hana, is emphasizing education for its staff and volunteers. They've been setting out homemade slug traps and taking other steps to control the pests.

"We are going and handpicking slugs at night and disposing of them," said farm manager Seth Raabe. "You still want to dispose of them in a way that doesn't let them get eaten by a rat or mongoose and recontaminate the area."

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The disease, which affects the brain and spinal cord, is caused by a parasite. The infection is carried by rodents and can be transmitted by slugs, snails and other animals found on fresh produce.

"This is a serious problem and it's going to impact farms, it will impact restaurants, it will impact grocery stores if we don't get this under control," said Kay Howe, curriculum development specialist for the Hawaii Island Rat Lungworm Working Group.

There have been six confirmed cases with ties to Maui in 2017. Three Big Island residents have also fallen ill.

Experts say the growing number of cases on Maui is particularly troubling because there were only three confirmed cases between 2008 and last year.

For Howe, the threat hits close to home. Her son, Graham McCumber, contracted the disease in 2008 and had a long road to recovery after spending three months in a coma.

"People often lose work for months or possibly lifetimes," Howe said. "So when you've seen somebody who has really suffered from this and had their life really affected, it does cause a great deal of worry."

Symptoms of the disease include severe headaches, hallucinations and nausea. There is no cure, but it is preventable. Health experts say all raw produce should be thoroughly washed. Experts also recommend covering any catchment tanks to prevent snails and slugs from getting into them.

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