Maui Rat ungwaorm disease

Eat all your veggies” we say to our children. Veggies and fruits are an important part of every diet providing countless vitamins, fiber, antioxidants among other nutrients. So how do we mamas provide a healthy diet to our keiki with the risk of Rat Lungworm Disease (RLWD) now becoming increasingly prevalent on Maui? 

RLWD comes from a parasitic nematode (roundworm) that grows in rat lungs. It gets passed onto snails and slugs primarily through rat feces. Humans contract RLWD by accidentally ingesting these infected snails and slugs hiding in our beloved vegetables and fruit. They are often found in lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, beans, leafy greens, ripening strawberries and tomatoes, as well as, marigolds, seedlings, basil and succulent foliage. Undercooked freshwater prawns and crabs is another source. Once the parasite is ingested, it goes through the stomach, into the blood stream and targets the spinal cord and brain. The symptoms of headache, stiff neck, skin tingling and sensitivity, pain and nausea usually present 1-3 weeks after ingestion. 

There currently is no cure for this disease so prevention is key. When cleaning vegetables and fruit, first wash your hands, then use only RUNNING tap water to wash the produce. Do NOT use salt, vinegar or soap as this agitates the snail or slug and causes them to release the parasites.  Remove EACH individual leaf of lettuce or any vegetable that has a “head” (broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, celery) and vigorously scrub under RUNNING tap water. Do NOT cut the bottom of the vegetables as physical disruption (cutting or stepping on) will cause the Cuban slug to shed its parasites. The goal is to physically remove all snails or slugs and their slime. They often are barely visible so do not rely on sight alone. Scrub every leaf and every fruit under running water, including fruit that is skinned: bananas, cantaloupe, mangoes and papayas.

Freezing your fruit and vegetables at 15 degrees for 48 hours will also kill the parasite. Another option is to boil for 5 minutes or cook to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

It is also highly recommended to remove all snails and slugs in your garden with tongs into a “slug jug”= 7 cups water to 1 cup salt. Leave for at least 48 hours. 

If you do find a snail or slug, you can contact Maui Invasive Species Committee and they will identify it for you.

Prevention is key, you can still eat fruits and vegetables that are cleaned properly, so please spread the word!  Aloha.

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Julie Smith has been a Doctor of Physical Therapy of over 15 years. She worked at two major hospitals on O'ahu and had a patient with RLWD several years ago and saw first-hand what this disease does. She now has two young children Cypress and Nai'a Moon. They recently moved to Maui from O'ahu October 2016, right before news of RLWD on Maui was made. Having had first-hand experience with this disease, She is very passionate about RLWD education and prevention to protect our community, especially our keiki.


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