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Maui Man with Rat Lungworm Disease Suing Local Organic Farm

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Rob Cowie
/
University of Hawaii at Manoa

A Wailuku man is suing H?na Fresh, claiming the nonprofit was negligent by distributing "unreasonably dangerous" produce that carried a slug infected with rat lungworm, a charge the food producer disputes.

The Maui News reports Scott Hessler filed the lawsuit last week. The suit claims he ate a mixed salad from H?na Fresh while working as a pastry chef at the Travaasa Hotel. He became sick within a couple of hours after eating the salad, and was later hospitalized. Doctors later diagnosed Hessler with rat lungworm after showing symptoms of the disease.

The lawsuit alleges H?na Health, the nonprofit that owns H?na Fresh, carries items with "manufacturing defects and insufficient warnings" about possibly containing rat lungworm disease. It also says the nonprofit is liable for distributing "defective and unreasonably dangerous produce."

Cheryl Vasconcellos, Executive Director of Hana Health, declined to comment on the lawsuit. But told The Maui News the farm "has had a slug/snail abatement program for almost 12 years, long before rat lungworm became an issue. We stand by our products as safe to consume."

H?na Fresh is a seven acre, organic farm that grows a variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs, along with traditional Hawaiian food and medicinal crops. Representatives with the nonprofit told the publication it stands by its product, saying it is "safe to consume." 

Earlier this month, two new cases of rat lungworm disease have been confirmed on Hawai?i Island, with one case being contracted late last year. The other is the first official case of rat lungworm this year in the state. Last year, there were a total of nine confirmed cases in the state - seven of which were on Hawai?i Island. The last confirmed case of rat lungworm in Maui County was last April.

According to the state Department of Health, symptoms of rat lungworm include:

  • Severe ongoing headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Neck and back stiffness
  • Tingling or painful skin
  • Low-grade fever

Symptoms will usually start one to three weeks after infection, and illness can last for two to eight weeks or longer.
Health officials say residents can avoid contracting the disease by:

  • Washing produce thoroughly under running water
  • Controlling rats, slugs and snails
  • Cooking food to proper temperatures
  • Covering water catchment tanks and containers

More information on the disease and prevention tips can be found here: http://health.hawaii.gov/docd/disease_listing/rat-lungworm-angiostrongyliasis/

Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at charlow@hawaiipublicradio.org or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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