A California couple has been in and out of hospital for months after the newlyweds went on a Hawaii honeymoon and contracted rat lungworm disease. Now, they are warning fellow travelers about the growing epidemic in the state.
"Had we known we were walking into this kind of environment, we would have had a completely different attitude," 57-year-old Eliza Lape told KGMB. "It really does disrupt and destroy people's lives."
It started in January, when Lape and her husband, 64-year-old Ben Manilla, enjoyed a picturesque wedding and two-week honeymoon vacation around the Hana area of Maui, Hawaii. But before they returned home to San Francisco, Lape had started to feel ill.
"My symptoms started growing to feeling like somebody was taking a hot knife and just stabbing me in different parts of my body," she said.
She had no idea that she had caught the parasite passed on by rats, slugs and snails that is usually ingested by humans who eat freshwater shrimp, land crabs or raw produce containing part of an infected slug or snail.
It only got worse from there. Manilla landed in the ICU for a month after he fell ill with the disease, which attacks the brain and spinal cord.
"I've had several operations, two pneumonias, a blood clot," recalled Manilla, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. "Right now, I'm dealing with a kidney issue, all of which was spurred by the ratlung."
The illness has been spreading around the island, with at least six confirmed cases in Maui this year and at least 11 in the state in 2016. However, some say that there could be many more cases that were not reported.
"They're just reporting numbers being discharged from hospitals, so they're missing all the other cases where people might go into a clinic and not a hospital," said University of Hawaii at Hilo's pharmaceutical sciences professor Susan Jarvi.
Epidemiologist Joe Elm said that organic produce is the most likely culprit to contain the ratlung parasite, notes KHON.
"I think the lack of pesticides on these crops are just an invitation for insects," he explained to KHON. "Like ... here's lunch! When you buy these products, we have to be careful."
Health Department Sanitation Supervisor Lance Wong said that the best way to avoid the parasite is to make sure produce is as clean as possible by washing your hands before handling it and then thoroughly rinsing it before eating.