Brain-Infecting Worm Booming in Popular Vacation Destination

Sharp uptick in cases of rat lungworm disease on Maui
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 8, 2017 12:49 PM CDT
Brain-Infecting Worm Booming in Popular Vacation Destination
This undated photo shows Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii.   (Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority via AP)

A parasitic worm that infects people's brains is turning up more frequently on Maui, and Hawaiian officials are getting worried. "It’s like having a slow-moving bullet go through your brain," says state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park, per the AP, explaining the effects of rat lungworm disease. According to ABC News, the worm lives in the lungs of rats, but its larvae are expelled in the rats' feces and infect slugs and snails, which in turn pass the larvae on to humans. The larvae can survive for months in humans, growing into worms an inch long. The parasite can cause a rare form of meningitis, which comes along with serious headaches, vomiting, temporary facial paralysis, and more. There's no treatment for the disease, and it can cause permanent brain damage, though it is rarely fatal.

Six cases of the disease have been reported on Maui in the past three months. The island had only two cases in the decade before that, and the entire state of Hawaii averages just 10 cases per year. Park says officials are "concerned that something has changed" to increase the risk on Maui, Hawaii News Now reports. Officials encourage people to wash their fruits and veggies well before eating and to avoid eating raw or undercooked snails or slugs. According to Live Science, the parasite has historically been found in Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands, but it's recently been expanding to the US, Africa, and beyond. (A doctor pulled the longest tapeworm he's ever seen from a man's mouth.)

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