Windward Oahu resident Shawzy Cann can personally attest to how debilitating it is to contract rat lungworm disease as health officials sound the alarm over six new cases on Maui in recent weeks.
Cann said it feels like electricity is continuously flowing through her body ever since she contracted rat lungworm disease after having a raw vegetable smoothie on Hawaii island.
"It's like being electrocuted all the time. Your nerves never turn off. ... It hurts when water touches my body," said Cann, 41.
"I cannot teach because of this disease," the former art teacher said.
In a state where words such as "organic" and "fresh" have become synonymous with good health, Hawaii residents and visitors are becoming aware of the dangers of eating raw food without close inspection and thorough cleaning.
Rat lungworm disease occurs when parasitic worm larvae infect a person's brain. The parasite is carried by rats and transmitted by snails and slugs.
Medical observers said the severity of the condition varies, depending on the part of the brain damaged by the parasite. Meningitis like symptoms range from headaches to encephalitis.
Most patients recover fully, but there is no medical treatment for it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since 2007 more than 50 people have contracted the tropical disease in Hawaii, including two who died, state health officials said.
The annual number of rat lungworm cases since 2007 had been in the single digits statewide, but the state had 11 confirmed cases in 2016.
So far in 2017, Hawaii island has had three cases, and Maui has had six confirmed cases. In the nine previous years, Maui had a total of only three cases.
It is believed the disease is contracted by eating raw vegetables containing the parasite Angiostrongylus cantonensis, carried by snails and slugs.
State epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said that although it's not a trend, the recent cluster of cases on Maui raises concerns.
"It does seem like something has occurred on Maui to increase the risk," she said.
She said the state Health Department is looking at what might be causing the spike.
Park said that in the case of leafy vegetables, the slugs are tiny and tend to adhere to the leaf, and consumers need to inspect and thoroughly wash each leaf. She said running faucet water over it isn't enough.
"If you have produce that's well cooked, there should be no risk," she said.
Some environmentalists contend a new species, Parmarion martensi, a "semi-slug," might be the culprit.
A Hawaii island study conducted in 2004 by the federal Agricultural Research Service found that more than 75 percent of semi-slugs contain the rat lungworm parasite, compared with Veronicella cubensis, a Cuban slug, which carries the parasite 25 percent of the time.
The study said the semi-slug is displacing the Cuban slug in some areas of the Big Island.
Adam Radford, manager of the Maui Invasive Species Committee, said that according to Hana residents, the semi-slug has been in the area for several years.
At a meeting in Hana attended by an estimated 150 people Thursday, a number of residents brought photographs of the semi-slug in their yards, according to a committee official.
Radford recommends that residents use tongs or gloves to remove the snails or slugs and place them in a saltwater solution to kill them.
More than two years after contracting the disease, Cann said she is now able to walk but is still in recovery.
She said an MRI shows her brain has pinholes from parasitic worms.
"This disease has really destroyed my life," she said.
This article is written by Gary T. Kubota from The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.