Three visitors to Hawaii’s Big Island in recent months have been infected with rat lungworm disease, a potentially debilitating parasite, health officials say.
Hawaii’s Department of Health said Thursday it received confirmation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control of the three cases and that they were unrelated.
The new cases bring the statewide total to five confirmed in 2019 and 10 in 2018, the health department said.
Angiostrongyliasis, or rat lungworm disease, is caused by a parasitic worm and can have severe effects on a person’s brain and spinal cord. Most people are infected when they accidentally consume one of the worms, the health department says.
Common symptoms include severe headaches and neck stiffness, but more serious cases can cause neurological problems, severe pain and long-term disability. According to the CDC, some cases can cause a rare form of meningitis.
CDC: Parasite called rat lungworm may be more common across the USA than people think
The parasite, Angiostrongylus cantonensis, gets its name because it infect rats, who then spread their larvae in feces that are ingested by snails and slugs. Rats later eat the infected snails and slugs, and then the larvae mature to become adult worms, the CDC says.
In Hawaii, the three unrelated cases came from people ingesting both slugs and unwashed fruits or vegetables, health officials suspect.
In one case, a visitor purposely ate a slug on a dare in December 2018. The health department said the person became ill, but was not hospitalized.
In a second case in February, the person became ill but it was not confirmed how they became infected. The health department says that the patient remembers eating homemade salads on vacation.
The third person, who was hospitalized, likely was infected by eating unwashed raw fruits or vegetables, health officials say.
More: Man left paralyzed after eating a slug has died, Australian media reports
Health officials warned people to wash raw fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, and look for worms on these foods before eating them.
The CDC says the disease is hard to diagnose and there is no treatment, but that in most cases it resolves over time as the parasite cannot survive in human bodies.
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