State unveils new strategy to combat rat lungworm disease

State unveils new strategy to combat rat lungworm disease
Updated: Aug. 2, 2017 at 5:44 PM HST
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The state has revealed its new strategy to battle a brain-infecting parasite. The Hawaii Department of Health didn't ask for funding to deal with rat lungworm disease during the last legislative session, but ended up receiving a total of $1 million for the next two years.

For the first year, most of the money will be used for public education. The DOH plans to spend $300,000 on a media campaign targeting residents as well as visitors. The state will also use $100,000 to boost control of rats, slugs, and snails that can spread the disease.

"We want to acknowledge the angst felt by our Puna and our Hana communities, particularly, and we also want to assure you that we take this disease very seriously," said DOH director Dr. Virginia Pressler.

Another $100,000 will be spent on a statewide rat, slug, and snail study with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies to identify risk factors. But critics believe even more research is needed since there is still a lot that is unknown about the disease.

"I'm disappointed that the state is apparently not interested in funding research efforts, but I am glad that at least the state now seems to be taking this a little more seriously," said Susan Jarvi, a professor in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

The Jarvi Lab has conducted research and outreach efforts for years, but has not been able to secure funding from lawmakers.

"Dr. Jarvi and her lab have done the most important and meaningful work in our community," said state Sen. Russell Ruderman (D-Puna, Kau). "It's very curious and to me tragic to not fund it.

Jarvi is a member of Gov. David Ige's joint task force on rat lungworm disease which will reconvene later this month. The Hawaii Department of Agriculture is also stepping up its efforts with farmers.

"As we speak, there are farm inspections happening on Maui to work with the farmers on food safety protocols," said DOA chair Scott Enright.

There have been 15 confirmed cases in Hawaii this year, which is the highest number over the last decade. The last rat lungworm case was reported in May.