Hawaii confirms third case of rat lungworm disease in Big Island resident

State health officials have confirmed a case of rat lungworm disease in a resident on Hawaii’s Big Island.

The resident, who lives in East Hawaii and was not identified by the State of Hawaii Department of Health, contracted the disease on the state’s Big Island. The case marks the third confirmed case of rat lungworm disease in the state this year.

Health officials formally confirmed the case in mid-April but noted the person, who was hospitalized as a result of the disease, was potentially infected with rat lungworm as early as February.

"The exact source of infection could not be identified," health officials said in a news release.

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“Diagnosis and treatment of this disease is incredibly difficult, especially since there is still much we don’t know about the parasite and the disease,” health director Bruce Anderson said in a statement.

“The Governor’s Joint Task Force on Rat Lungworm Disease has done extensive work to develop preliminary clinical guidance for local physicians who may encounter patients with the disease and physician trainings will continue this year. That work, along with immediate reporting by physicians is critical to facilitate prompt, accurate diagnosis and appropriate patient management,” he added.

Rat lungworm — scientifically known as angiostrongylus cantonensis — is a parasite that’s found in rodents. The infected rodents then pass the parasite’s larvae through their feces, later infecting snails and slugs, among other creatures, when they ingest the larvae. Humans who eat raw or undercooked snails or slugs that contain the parasite can be infected, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. 

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Rat lungworm disease can have “debilitating effects on the infected person’s brain and spinal cord,” the Hawaii State Department of Health said, noting most people in the state becoming ill “by accidentally ingesting a snail or slug infected with the parasite.”

“Symptoms vary widely between cases, and the most common ones include severe headaches and neck stiffness. The most serious cases experience neurological problems, severe pain and long-term disability,” it added.

The news comes after state health officials in February confirmed two people on Hawaii’s Big Island — one visitor and a resident — contracted the disease.