International workshop on rat lungworm disease to be held on August 17-18University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Posted: Aug 12, 2011
An international scientific workshop to address concerns about the parasitic infection known as “rat lungworm disease,” which has recently caused serious illness, including coma, in a number of people in Hawai‘i, will be held on August 17-18 at the Ala Moana Hotel.
Workshop organizers include UH Mānoa’s Robert Cowie, a researcher in the Pacific Biosciences Research Center (PBRC), and Jim Hollyer of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR), as well as colleagues at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Hilo and the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
The transdisciplinary workshop will bring together an international group of scientists and clinicians from places as far apart as Brazil, Jamaica, China and Thailand. They bring a broad range of expertise and experience to the meeting, ranging from parasitology, ecology and food safety, to disease epidemiology, medical diagnosis, and patient treatment. The goal of the meeting is to develop a concerted research agenda to address this disease at a global scale.
Attendance is by invitation only, but future workshops on each island are being planned and will facilitate local input and outreach.
Rat lungworm disease is contracted when people ingest the immature worms that are carried by snails and slugs. Ingestion is most often inadvertent—for example, by eating a small baby slug on a lettuce leaf. But there are known cases in which people have deliberately eaten uncooked slugs—in at least one case, on a dare.
Snails and slugs become infected with the worms by feeding on feces from infected rodents, primarily rats. Worms begin their development in the rats and are then passed in the feces. When they are eaten by snails and slugs, the worms develop further, only then to be eaten by rats, in which the worms reproduce. The cycle then repeats. This is the natural way in which the worms develop and reproduce.
If people eat the snails or slugs, however, the worms develop but die once they reach the central nervous system, especially the brain. Then the immune reaction caused by the dead worms results in serious inflammation and damage in the nervous system and brain, and can lead to symptoms including headache, stiff neck, numbness, tingling or pain in the skin, fever, nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, weakness, joint pain and neurological abnormalities. More severe symptoms can include paralysis of the legs, bowel and bladder dysfunction, seizures, coma and, although rare, death.
The disease appears to be a tropical disease but, with the increasing spread of invasive alien species, including rats, and slugs and snails, to all parts of the world, and with global warming increasing the potential latitudinal range of the parasite, it is seen as an important emerging infectious disease.
This workshop is partially funded by a grant of $48,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A team including Cowie and Hollyer also recently released a fact sheet explaining to farmers and consumers how to minimize the risks of contracting rat lungworm disease from possibly contaminated produce. The fact sheet may be obtained from CTAHR’s website: http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/FST-39.pdf.