Despite a spike in reported cases of rat lungworm disease, the House-Senate conference committee on Friday failed to pass Senate Bill 272, a measure that would have funded a range of efforts to curb the spread of infections.
State Sen. Kaialii Kahele, who sponsored the bill, said committee members were unable to secure necessary funds — as much as $695,000 in each of the next two fiscal years to support a team of researchers led by Susan Jarvi at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Kahele said finance chairs of the House and Senate gave no explanation on “why even just a little bit of funding wasn’t provided to sustain the program.”
“It’s a huge disappointment,” Kahele said. “Dr. Jarvi and the UH Hilo team have been surviving on a bare-bones budget for the past few years. They really are the subject-matter experts on rat lungworm in Hawaii. There’s no other lab that’s doing what UH Hilo is doing.”
Dr. Lorrin Pang, Hawaii’s chief health officer for Maui, searches in Hana for semi-slugs that carry the rat lungworm parasite.
This week, the department announced that two more people on the Big Island tested positive for the parasitic infection, which causes eosinophilic meningitis that sometimes leads to temporary paralysis and even death.
That brought the total of confirmed cases so far in 2017 to 13, compared with 11 in all of last year.
In response, state lawmakers set aside some funds in the budget Monday, allocating $500,000 in each of the next two fiscal years for the Health Department to deal with rat lungworm disease.
Janice Okubo, a department spokeswoman, said it’s too early to know how the funds will be used.
“Legislators have expressed their concerns to us for increasing public education and outreach about the disease, so much of the funding may go toward those efforts,” Okubo said. “We are also committed to working with the counties and other organizations and will be talking with the legislators, the counties and various agencies to determine how best to use the funds.”
But Kahele said it’s unlikely that Jarvi’s work will be supported by the funds. “The departments don’t just cut a $100,000 check to UH Hilo,” he said.
“The state Department of Health — they’ve been late to the game and haven’t really acknowledged rat lungworm disease as the imminent threat to Hawaii’s people,” Kahele said.
For her part, Jarvi said she’ll have to rely on private grants to continue her work.
It’s “pretty disappointing that the state doesn’t value research,” Jarvi said. “I wish the people on Oahu making these decisions actually knew what these (rat lungworm disease) victims actually go through.”
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