(BIVN) – It was a disappointing year at the Hawaii state legislature for funding studies on rat lungworm disease, but Hawaii Islands’ top researchers have not given up.
Dr. Sue Jarvi and Kay Howe recently spoke at a Hawaii County Demcratic Party event in Kona, joining other grassroots organizations to raise awareness for their various causes. Working at UH-Hilo’s Daniel K Inouye College of Pharmacy labs, Jarvi and Howe have led the way towards a better understanding of the disease, Angiostrongylus cantonensis.
Snails, and slugs are intermediate hosts for the nematode that commonly resides in the pulmonary arteries of rats (hence the name). Humans can become infected with the A. cantonensis if they somehow ingest the parasite; for example, if the slime of an infected slug finds its way onto produce before it is eaten raw. The disease affects the brain and spinal cord.
On the 4th of July, Jarvi and Howe gave an update on their ongoing efforts from the stage of Maka’eo pavilion at the Old Kona Airport.
“One of the studies we’re working on is on diagnostics,” Jarvi said. “Right now, if you get rat lungworm disease and/or you think you do… you go to the E.R. and they’ll want to do a spinal tap. They take that cerebral spinal fluid and test it with a molecular test. That’s the only definitive way of diagnosing it right now. And who wants a spinal tap, right?”
With funding from the Hawaii Community Foundation, Jarvi is trying to develop a blood-based diagnostic as an alternative to the spinal tap. In order to accomplish this, Jarvi said they needed to isolate a bunch of the rat lungworm proteins.
This past spring, working with USDA, APHIS and the Hawaii Department of Health vector control, Jarvi and her team captured and trapped over 545 rats in the Hilo area. “We realized that over 90% percent of those rats were positive for rat lungworm,” Jarvi told the Kona crowd. “So here on the island, we have an epidemic proportion of our rats being positive for rat lungworm.”
Since Hilo is a port city, Jarvi said we are “probably exporting rat lungworm from Hawaii Island. We really need to address this issue a little more seriously.”
Kay Howe has become intimately familiar with the disease over the last decade, and not only as a researcher.
“My son got this disease back in 2008,” Howe said. “He was the one in the newspaper that went into a coma from this.”
Howe, an avid supporter of local, organically-grown food, has been teaching kids involved with school garden projects in order “to grow a generation of students that understand this disease is here and what to do about it,” she explained.
“I’ve been working with school garden projects to develop an integrated pest management plan and accompanying STEM curriculum to go along with it,” Howe said, “so this way we’re getting the kids to become community educators and start to deal with this issue here in Hawaii.”
Howe is still struggling to help her son Graham, who has been accepted into the Acquired Brain Injury Program in California. She started a crowdfunding effort to help her offset the burden of the related medical debts.
Before leaving the Maka’eo stage, Jarvi added that a recent donation from the Anderson-Beck Fund has enabled them to print a friendly informational brochure “to go in every grocery store, every market, produce distributors, everywhere we can find to put it on Hawaii Island”.
While unwashed produce remains a concern, Catchment Systems also bear watching. Catchment is prevalent in the Puna district where the disease has hit the hardest. Thanks to the studies by Jarvi and Howe, this passage is found in the freshly-published Guidelines on Rainwater Catchment Systems for Hawaii by Patricia Macomber at the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. On page 31, it states:
Current research is rapidly replacing and expanding our knowledge of the rat lungworm and the disease of the same name. This disease is a concern to catchment users because the infectious larvae may be capable of emerging from drowned slugs, and we now know that they can exist as free-living organisms in water or moist environments. The infectious stage of the larvae has been observed living over a month outside of a drowned slug. It is important to keep slugs, snails, and the infectious larvae they carry out of water tanks. The University of Hawai‘i’s School of Pharmacy is currently involved in research to determine what types of filters and treatment are effective in potable water supplies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had recommended a 20-micron filter, but due to recent observations that recommendation is being questioned. An ultraviolet light system is also being investigated for inactivating these parasites. Hopefully studies will be done soon that will give us more definitive answers on effective treatment and barriers. In the meantime, do whatever you can to keep mollusks and the rats that are a necessary part of the life cycle of the parasite out of your system and off your roof. While no filters have been tested yet, using as small a one as possible (5 micron) might help.