HONOLULU — Almost 94 percent of rats in the Hilo region are infected with the parasite that causes rat lungworm disease, a recent study on the meningitis-like disease showed.
The research was released Monday as the state started its first statewide campaign to prevent the disease.
The most recent case came out of Hilo, where a resident contracted the disease in late November. Department of Health officials suspect the Big Island patient accidentally ingested an infected slug while drinking from a garden house.
People contract the disease by ingesting food contaminated with snails or slugs that carry parasitic larvae from rat droppings.
The state’s $300,000 campaign will include a series of television and radio announcements urging people to wash fruits and vegetables before eating them to avoid the potentially debilitating disease, which affects the brain and spinal cord.
The Legislature earlier this year granted the Health Department $1 million over the next two years to control the spread of rat lungworm.
There were 18 laboratory-confirmed cases in Hawaii this year. The Big Island has seen the most cases at 11, followed by Maui at six.
Sue Jarvi, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, said the recent study shed light on how common the disease is in rats.
Jarvi said rats near Hilo Harbor and Hilo International Airport are especially worrisome because some end up getting transported to the mainland and other countries, potentially exporting rat lungworm.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UH-Hilo and researchers in Thailand are all reviewing parasites that were collected, Jarvi said.
“The risk of rat lungworm disease is present on all islands and there are basic steps we can take each day to reduce this risk and help prevent infection,” said Keith Kawaoka, the department’s deputy director of environmental health. “Knowledge is the best defense we can provide people with to collectively protect our communities from rat lungworm disease in Hawaii.”