Rare brain parasite infects 9 in Hawaii

Health officials in Hawaii have confirmed nine cases of rat lungworm disease in the last three months, according to CNN.

The rare disease is caused by a parasite known as Angiostrongylus cantonensis, which is often carried by rats. In humans, the parasite causes a disease called angiostrongyliasis, which affects the brain and the spinal cord and can often present as bacterial meningitis.

Six of the confirmed cases have occurred on the island of Maui and the three other confirmed cases are on the Big Island. Additionally, there are three suspected cases currently under investigation on Maui and one possible case under investigation on Hawaii.

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The disease is usually found in parts of Asia and the Pacific Islands, according to the CDC. Janice Okubo, a spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Health, told CNN the state typically receives reports of one to nine cases total of rat lungworm disease each year. In 2007, two deaths were linked to the parasitic infection.

"The investigation is fluid and the cluster of cases, though not all confirmed, are very concerning," said Ms. Okubo via email, according to CNN.

The health department cannot confirm how each individual became infected with the parasite, but infections are most commonly associated with consuming raw or undercooked slugs and snails, which feed on the feces rats. The parasite can also be ingested by humans after eating undercooked freshwater prawns, crabs and frogs, but evidence for this mode of infection is not as clear as evidence for infection via ingesting infected snails or slugs, according to the CDC.

While symptoms of the disease can vary from person to person, they often include neck stiffness, vomiting, nausea and headaches. The illness typically lasts from two to three weeks and usually does not require treatment, as the parasite dies over time. However, serious complications related to the infection can occur, sometimes causing neurological dysfunction or death, according to the CDC.

Among the confirmed cases of rat lung disease in the state, two have occurred visitors and seven in state residents. The CDC is currently monitoring the recent spike of parasitic infections in Hawaii, according to CNN.

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