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New research finds 13 more species can infect humans with rat lungworm

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Tropical Conservation Biology Department, UH Hilo

Research from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and the University of London found that rat lungworm disease can be transmitted by species other than snails and slugs.

The report documented that 32 species can carry the parasite — including freshwater prawns/shrimp, crayfish, crabs, flatworms, fish, sea snakes, frogs, toads, lizards, centipedes, cattle, pigs and snails.

Thirteen species of prawns/shrimp, crabs, flatworms, fish, frogs, toads, lizards and centipedes have been associated with causing rat lungworm disease in humans.

Research professor Robert Cowie says the disease can be avoided if people wash their produce with tap water and cook their meat.

"The key issue here is people deliberately eat one of these hosts raw. If you cook them, it's fine. But if you eat them raw, and people do eat raw frogs, for instance, then you can become infected just as if you'd eaten a snail or slug, which are different kinds of hosts. They’re the hosts which are key components of the natural life cycle of rat lungworm," said Cowie.

"The paragenic hosts that we were studying are hosts in which the parasite simply sits there, doesn't develop, just remains dormant but does remain infected," Cowie told HPR.

Hawaiʻi is one of the most well-known places where rat lungworm disease occurs — although cases are rare.

There have been 182 reported cases since 1959, but Cowie says there are likely hundreds of undiagnosed cases.

Rat lungworm disease only became diagnosable in 2007. People infected with the parasite often mistake the symptoms for the influenza virus.

Zoe Dym is a news producer at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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