The Department of Health is continuing to assess Hawaii residents’ eating habits in hopes of understanding behaviors associated with contracting foodborne illnesses such as rat lungworm disease. 

Throughout July, the department’s Disease Outbreak Control Division will conduct the second round of its food consumption survey

State Epidemiologist Sarah Park said the results will help officials identify what behaviors put people most at risk for contracting foodborne diseases, and distinguish Hawaii consumption patterns from base data collected from other states.

The semi slug is a common carrier of rat lungworm. Tad Bartimus/Civil Beat

“This is the first real population survey that the health department has conducted that could be really helpful, not just for rat lungworm disease, but a lot of our foodborne diseases,” she said. “We want to provide better background to the investigations we conduct and to provide more meaning to the things we do find, whether it’s rat lungworm disease or not.”

Rat lungworm disease, also known as angiostrongyliasis, is carried by a microscopic parasitic worm which reproduces in the lungs of rats. Snails, slugs, frogs, freshwater shrimp and land crabs can become carriers of the disease, which can then be contracted by humans via contaminated produce. 

Five cases have been confirmed on the Big Island so far this year. In 2018, 10 cases were confirmed. The disease can severely affect the brain and the spinal cord, causing eosinophilic meningitis.

The survey will be distributed at random by mail. It inquires about diet and where people purchase or grow their food. It also asks about sources of drinking and cooking water, food preparation, and possible exposure to rats, slugs and snails near the respondent’s home.  

Epidemiologists are still analyzing the data collected from the first round of the survey, which yielded nearly 4,500 responses in November.

Lorin Eleni Gill, who covers health care issues, is a corps member with Report For America, a national nonprofit organization that places journalists in local newsrooms. Her health care coverage is also supported by Papa Ola Lokahi, the Atherton Family Foundation and the George Mason Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation.

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