UH researchers plead for funding to combat rat lungworm disease

Updated: Apr. 17, 2017 at 5:51 PM HST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn
(Image: The Jarvi Lab, College of Pharmacy, University of Hawaii at Hilo)
(Image: The Jarvi Lab, College of Pharmacy, University of Hawaii at Hilo)

HILO, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - As the state tries to stop the spread of rat lungworm disease, researchers are pleading for more funding.

Susan Jarvi, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, began studying the illness six years ago after meeting Kay Howe, whose son contracted the illness. The two women created the Hawaii Island Rat Lungworm Working Group to fight the brain-invading parasite carried and spread mainly by slugs, snails and rats.

"A survey that we did in January of rats, wild trapped rats in Hilo, out of 557 rats, looking through the heart and lungs, 94% of them were either currently infected or had signs of previous infection," said Howe.

The Hawaii Community Foundation has been the main source of research money. For education and outreach in schools, the university provided funds and Howe also started a GoFundMe campaign. The lab is still struggling, even with recent assistance from the Hawaii Invasive Species Council. Researchers hope that the legislature will approve a bill for prevention and eradication programs, and provide UH Hilo with $695,000 a year for two years.

State Senator Kai Kahele, one of the bill's sponsors, spent time in the lab to learn about the research.

"We had a chance to really get a true picture of what this debilitating disease does and that prompted us to look at the legislation again and reintroduce this bill," he said.

Diagnosing patients usually requires a spinal tap since there is no readily available blood test. Jarvi hopes her team will be able to solve that problem if the funding comes through.

"It's very difficult to diagnose and I've seen patients with rat lungworm, but they come in with headaches. You don't see easy diagnoses on scans and what not," explained physician and state Sen. Josh Green (D - Kona, Kau).

Jarvi is hoping for a breakthrough to stop the spread of this potentially devastating disease.

"What we'd like to try is deworming rats. We deworm our dogs and horses, so why not try to develop a deworming bait that people could use around their houses?" she said.

Senate Bill 272 will be negotiated in a conference committee. UH Hilo would have to work together with the health and agriculture departments and other agencies before the funding is released.