Local officials in Hawaii are concerned due to a parasitic worm infection called rat lungworm disease that has sickened six people in recent months, as compared to only two people in the previous decade.
According to a report from ABC News, the rat lungworm is known by the scientific name Angiostrongylus cantonesis, and once people are infected, there is no known treatment. People can get the infection by eating raw or undercooked snails, or fruits and vegetables that have been contaminated by the worm, and once this happens, it could result in meningitis, and in some cases, death.
Over the last three months, there have been six cases of the worm-related infection reported or three times the number of infections recorded in the previous decade.
In a presentation posted on Facebook and quoted by ABC News, Maui district health officer Dr. Lorrin Pang talked about how the Hawaiian parasitic worm infections could potentially be deadly. He said that the worm could stay in the body for months, and that could result in immune system reactions wherein affected patients may get scars or suffer nervous system damage, making the infection a very painful one.
“Our body realizes this is so foreign we attack it…by that time the worm is one inch big and by then it’s a major battle. There is a whole lot of collateral damage…attacking the worm attacks ourselves and that is the issue.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that people infected by the rat lungworm may only experience symptoms after six weeks. Classically, symptoms of such infections include severe headaches, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, and vomiting.
Speaking to ABC News, University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center infectious disease specialist Dr. Constantine Tsigrelis said that it’s hard to treat people once the parasitic worm infects them, as it is common for people to suffer brain or nervous system damage as a result of their immune system killing the parasite, thereby worsening their condition.
“An anti-parasitic drug could kill the worm but the problem is that the dying organisms can create a very severe inflammatory response and the patient can get worse.”
Pang was also quoted as saying that the worm, despite residing for only a few months within the human body, could cause permanent brain damage. The rat lungworm is mainly found in the Pacific Basin and Southeast Asia but has also been spotted in Hawaii, Louisiana, and the Caribbean, according to the CDC’s official literature on the worm.
One would still have to wonder why A. cantonensis infections have become so common in Hawaii, and why a worm mainly found in the Pacific and Southeast Asia has also made an unexpected arrival in the continental United States. According to Gizmodo, experts have blamed the rat lungworm and its eponymous disease’s spread on two things: climate change and globalization.
The first such parasitic worm infection associated with the rat lungworm was recorded in 1944 in Taiwan, and the Atlantic noted that the parasite may have arrived in the United States via rats in cargo ships. Infections have since been reported in more than 30 countries, including the U.S., and while globalization has been pinned as a culprit, climate change has also been suggested as a reason for rat lungworm disease’s increasing prevalence.
“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,” wrote the World Health Organization in a 2004 report discussing why certain parasitic worm infections like rat lungworm disease have spread to rather unusual or unexpected parts of the world.
[Featured Image by D. Kucharski K. Kucharska/Shutterstock]