With the latest case of rat lungworm disease confirmed on Oahu — the first in seven years — what should you do to protect your family from this debilitating disease?
We went straight to the source of where you get your produce for answers.
Health officials are combing East Oahu, where the patient works and lives, for signs of rats and slugs that carry the disease.
While the investigation continues, the public is being urged to take extra steps to ensure the food they eat is safe.
One local farmer encourages people to ask a lot of questions.
Dean Okimoto, who owns Nalo Farms in Waimanalo, says since a lot is still unknown about why people are getting the disease, you should educate yourself on who is providing the fruits and vegetables you’re taking home.
Okimoto says he’s worried the recent case could hurt business for already struggling local farmers.
“I was at home and watching the news. I saw it and I thought, oh my goodness,” Okimoto said. “If you’re buying from a farmer, they’re doing protocols to mitigate the situation. I really believe all the cases on the islands have been from backyarders.”
The Hawaii Department of Health says, with the exception of a few cases on Hawaii island where some got the disease after drinking homemade kava, officials are still investigating how people got it and why they’re seeing a spike in cases.
“There’s a lot of potential theories. Is it weather conditions? Exposure to eating unwashed, uncooked produce?” said Keith Kawaoka, deputy director, DOH Environmental Health Administration.
We asked the health department if people choosing to eat more organic produce, which means less pesticides for commercial farms or grown from a backyard, could be a reason for why there’s a spike in rat lungworm disease. We’re told it’s possible.
When asked the same question, Okimoto replied: “Yes. Because that’s why we’re not organic too. We use a chemical product to control slugs and snails on the outside of our fields, which organic growers cannot use. You know what, I’d rather be safe and make sure we’re delivering a safe product to our customers.”
While Nalo Farms does not have an organic certification, it still uses organic methods.
Okimoto says ask your local farmer lots of questions about food safety regulations.
“We do use a slug bait around the property. We have rat traps. We wash our product in sanitized water,” Okimoto said, “but I still tell them, even if it says ready to eat, I would take home everything you buy and wash again. For your safety, whether it be from the mainland, local, wherever.”
The Department of Agriculture has been in touch with local farmers about its food safety protocols.
The health department will also be rolling out public service announcements geared at locals and tourists about preventing rat lungworm disease.