By Rhett Jones
Health officials in Hawaii have been warning residents not to touch snails or slugs with their bare hands because of an increase in cases of people coming into contact with a rare parasitic infection known as a rat lungworm. Experts are blaming its sudden spread across the United States on climate change and globalization.
Pretty much everything about this disease is nasty. Rat lungworm is a parasitic nematode (Angiostrongylus cantonensis) that begins its life as an infection in rat’s lungs, blood, and brains. From there, the rats defecate worm larvae that are spread to other creatures like snails, slugs, and freshwater shrimp. Humans might eat one of these infected hosts or they might eat produce that has had the worm transferred to it by a host. Next thing you know, your brain is being invaded and it doesn’t sound good at all. Once rat lungworm disease moves into the brain it can cause meningitis and its symptoms include tremors, pain, and inflammation. It is often fatal.
The Maui News reported on the recent cases this week and spoke with local residents about the spread of the invasive semi-slug on the island, and the infectious disease that it carries. Locals say that they’ve become increasingly paranoid about eating produce and they line their yards with slug bait. And for an area that thrives on tourism, paranoia about eating the local food can be an economic nightmare.
A local preschool teacher described her experience with parasitic meningitis that was a result of rat lungworm to the Honolulu Civil Beat:
The parasites are in the lining of my brain, moving around. Because I work with children I try to tell stories through word pictures. My visual graphic for what’s happening is that every once in a while somebody opens the top of my head, sets a hot iron inside my brain, then pushes the steam button.
I have a half dozen medicine bottles, several for pain because any movement of my head spikes my pain level to 12. I don’t see any improvement, just that every day is a different day, different pain.
The severity of the disease can vary wildly, there’s no known treatment, and it’s notoriously difficult to diagnose.
Cases of rat lungworm infections have been documented in over 30 countries and health officials are worried about its appearance in areas where previously the habitat was believed to be unsuitable. One recent surprise location was in Oklahoma. Scientists fear that this is just another consequence of climate change. A 2004 World Health Organization report warned that “most new infections seem to be caused by pathogens already present in the environment, which have been brought out of obscurity, or given selective advantage, by changing ecological or social conditions.”