UH researchers fight for funding as rat lungworm cases continue to rise

UH researchers fight for rat lungworm funding as case count rises
Updated: Apr. 26, 2017 at 11:03 PM HST
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HILO, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - Another Big Island resident is infected with rat lungworm disease, according to the Hawaii Department of Health. This brings the number of confirmed cases statewide to 12. Officials say four other cases are considered highly probable.

Despite the upswing in cases, researchers who have been studying the disease for years at the University of Hawaii at Hilo are still pleading for state funding.

"There's a huge sense of outrage on this island," said Kay Howe, curriculum development specialist for the Hawaii Island Rat Lungworm Working Group.

They've been struggling to get by, mainly relying on grants and donations. A bill to fund their lab is tied up in a conference committee, but lawmakers unexpectedly gave the DOH a total of $1 million in the two-year state budget, even though officials didn't ask for money to deal with the problem.

"We talked to Department of Health and put it in vector control ... so that they can start the research and get the public announcement out and make sure we tackle this issue," said state Rep. Sylvia Luke, chair of the House Finance Committee.

DOH officials said it's too early for them to decide how the money will be spent.

"We're dealing with the response and that's our main focus, to address that immediate concern," said Keith Kawaoka, deputy director of environmental health.

The legislature will vote on the budget before it's sent to the governor. The earliest the DOH could receive its funding is July.

"We'll be talking with the various counties, the mayors, civil defense, as well as our own district health offices there to address what specific areas of support they're going to need," Kawaoka said.

UH Hilo professor Sue Jarvi said her lab would have to stop its rat lungworm research and outreach efforts if no funding is secured.

"Vegetable wash studies, catchment studies, we don't have the funding for that," she said. "You can't run a research lab without funding, so I would basically have to stop if we receive no more funding."

On Thursday, members of a conference committee will continue negotiations on the bill to fund UH Hilo's lab.

"It would be a huge loss, but it would also be a disaster because as you can see, rat lungworm is kind of exploding right now," said state Sen. Russell Ruderman (D, Puna-Kau).

The UH researchers hope that lawmakers will find a way to help the lab continue its important work.

"Collaboratively, we could make some real progress, but this is not going to be solved without the research, too," said Howe.

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