Health officials in Hawaii are worried about a recent increase in cases of Angiostrongylus cantonensis – rat lungworm – contamination. While rat lungworm infections aren’t entirely without precedent in Hawaii, the last two recorded cases took place a decade earlier. This has sparked concern over the six new cases of rat lungworm infection discovered in the last three months. The cause of the rise in rat lungworm infections is yet to be ascertained.
Low Risk of Human Infection Compensated by Severity
Rat lungworm infection is spread primarily through rats, which act as hosts to adult worms. The larvae of the lungworm are excreted via rat feces and can thus come in contact in humans both directly and indirectly through the meat of shrimp, snails, and crabs. Consumption of contaminated fruits can also cause rat lungworm infection.
While the infection is usually harmless, the larvae can sometimes move into the brain of the host. This can cause meningitis and have severe consequences such as intense headaches, tremors, and numbness. Some patients have been forced to use walkers or canes due to the severity of the tremors caused by the parasitic meningitis. The pain resulting from the rat lungworm infection also causes debilitating discomfort to the patient.
Increased Shipping due to Globalization could be the Culprit
The new outbreak has been linked to slugs and snails observed in Maui, the Big Island, Kauai, etc. As a result, healthcare agencies have been quick to recommend not touching any slugs and snails, as well as washing all food items carefully before consumption. In spite of the terrifying consequences of the infection, preventing it remains relatively simple.
The constant increase in shipping around Hawaii, particularly ships traveling through the Panama Canal, is suspected to play a key role in the sudden increase in rat lungworm infections. The species was first identified in Taiwan but has since been discovered in several regions across the world.