The spread of a brain parasite infection, angiostrongylus cantonensis, also known as rat lungworm, is on the rise in Maui. People can become infected from snails and slugs. The rise in the number of infections is being blamed both on climate change and globalization. Residents of Hawaii are being told by health officials not to touch slugs or snails with their bare hands because of an increase in the numbers of cases of people contacting the brain parasite infection.
While there have been only two documented cases reported in the past two decades, in the last three months, an additional six cases have been documented in Hawaii. In addition, cases have been reported on the mainland in the states of Alabama, California, Florida, and Louisiana.
According to Gizmodo, rat lungworm infections are “believed to have spread to the U.S. by way of rats in cargo ships.” A parasitic nematode, Angiostrongylus cantonensis, begins its life as an infection found in the lungs of rats lungs, their blood, or their brains, is behind humans getting the disease.
The rat lungworm nematodes get ingested eventually by humans when rats that are infected poop worm larvae that then spread to other creatures such as freshwater shrimp, snails and slugs. When humans eat an infected host, or when they eat produce that has the worm, they become infected.
According to Tech Times, a person can get infected by the brain parasite not only by handling snails or slugs with their bare hands, but also from eating produce or raw or undercooked slugs, snails, or freshwater shrimp infected by the worm larvae from having eaten them. Epidemiologist Sarah Park, of the Hawaii department of health, described the brain parasite infection as being “like having a slow-moving bullet go through your brain.”
When the angiostrongylus cantonensis parasite travels to the brain it can cause meningitis. Symptoms include pain, inflammation, and tremors. The disease caused by the infection “is often fatal.”
Tech Times reported that symptoms of being infected by the brain parasite include bad headache, neck stiffness, sensitivity to light, and vomiting.” The symptoms can sometimes “start more than six weeks after the worm was ingested.”
Maui News has spoken with local residents about the recent cases of the brain parasite, rat lungworm, spread largely by “the invasive semi-slug on the island. “Area residents have said that they are more careful about washing local produce before they eat it “and they line their yards with slug bait.”
One recent location where there was a case of the brain parasite occurring that surprised health officials was in Oklahoma. So far, there have been cases of the brain parasite “documented in over 30 countries,” and some scientists believe the recent rise in cases “is just another consequence of climate change.”
The brain parasite can be difficult to diagnose because no blood test is available that will confirm an infection is present.” Also, there is currently no treatment for the disease. While there is an “anti-parasitic drug that can kill the worm,” according to Constantine Tsigrelis, of the University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, a specialist in infectious diseases, the treatment “can also injure the patient’s brain or nervous system,” leading to a worsening of the condition.
The first known cases of angiostrongylus cantonensis infection “was identified in Taiwan in 1944.” Since then, the brain parasite has spread all around the globe, and eventually, it was introduced to North America, due to globalization. The spread of the disease has also been blamed on climate change, “as a warming world has been known to contribute to the spread of a range of diseases such as the mosquito-borne Zika virus.”
According to a state Department of Health official, besides the six confirmed cases of people on the island being infected by angiostrongylus cantonensis disease, health officials there are investigating the possibility of an additional three cases. The six confirmed cases “involve four Maui residents and two individuals from Northern California who were visiting the Valley Isle.
The rise in cases of the brain parasite, angiostrongylus cantonensis, is being blamed on globalization, climate change, touching infected creatures like snails and slugs bare handed, and on eating raw or undercooked freshwater shrimp, snails, or slugs that are infected with the potentially deadly nematode. Many of the cases could have been prevented, by taking precautions like washing one’s hands after handling creatures that might be infected, and by making sure produce is washed and creatures that might be infected are thoroughly cooked before they are eaten.
By John Samuels