Infant contracts rat lungworm disease, bringing number of cases in Hawaii to 17

State confirms first case of rat lungworm disease on Oahu since 2010
Published: Aug. 9, 2017 at 6:01 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 27, 2017 at 9:49 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state has confirmed that an infant in the Puna district of the Big Island has contracted the rat lungworm disease.

The case brings the total number sickened by the disease, caused by a brain-invading parasite, to 17 so far in 2017.

The state Department of Health said the infant became infected likely after accidentally consuming a slug or snail. The illness was confirmed on Wednesday.

"Usually he's a happy joyful baby. Always eating, crawling all over," said the boy's mother, Santini Tauanuu. "Everything goes to his mouth."

Tauanuu took the eleven month-old Pahoa boy, Kane, to urgent care for the first time on September 8. Doctors ruled out the flu and other disease and sent him home.

"I took him to the doctors. I followed up with pediatrician. I followed up with urgent care and with Hilo Medical Center. So it was quite frustrating at first," said Tauanuu.

Eight days after his first urgent care visit, a spinal tap finally revealed Kane had rat lungworm disease. The boy was immediate medevaced to Oahu, where he is being nursed back to health.

"We want to see that he can crawl and sit up on his own, like how he normally would do," said Tauanuu, who added that if all goes well, the family can return to Pahoa next week.

Last month, officials also confirmed the first case of rat lungworm disease on Oahu since 2010. Officials said the Oahu resident started experiencing symptoms of rat lungworm in July.

"We know that there are slugs and snails and rodents on all the islands with the parasite on all the islands, so I think from the public's standpoint, overall they should maintain that vigilance to properly inspect and wash and store their produce," said Keith Kawaoka, deputy director of Environmental Health.

The case of rat lungworm comes amid state plans to ramp up efforts to raise awareness about the infection — and what people can do to lower their risk of contracting it. Due to growing concerns, lawmakers set aside $1 million over two years. Most of the money will be spent on public education. The rest of the funds will be used for controlling rats, slugs, and snails, as well as a statewide study of the pests.

"It's always concerning to hear about a case because it's so devastating to the patient," said Kenton Kramer, chair of the governor's Joint Task Force on Rat Lungworm Disease. "This case puts more emphasis on making sure that we get the word out here on Oahu as well."

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Rat lungworm is a disease that affects the brain and spinal cord.

It's caused by a parasitic nematode that's only found in rodents. Rodents pass the larvae on in their feces, and other animals (including slugs or snails) can become infected. Humans can get sick when they inadvertently eat those intermediate hosts, usually on raw produce that hasn't been washed.

The disease causes a rare type of meningitis. Some people have no or mild symptoms. Others can become violently ill.

Those who do exhibit symptoms complain of severe headache and stiffness of the neck, tingling or painful feelings in the skin or extremities, low-grade fever, nausea, and vomiting. Sometimes, the disease can also cause temporary face paralysis  as well as light sensitivity.

To lower your chances of getting rat lungworm, health officials recommend:

  • Carefully inspecting, washing and storing produce in sealed containers.
  • Washing fruits and vegetables under running water, especially leafy greens, in order to remove any tiny slugs or snails.
  • Controlling snail, slug, and rat populations around your property, especially around home gardens.

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