Rat lungworm, an emerging infectious disease, was found to be widespread in the Hawaiian Islands, according to a study at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. 

Researchers found the ringworm parasite to be present in snails and slugs on at least five of the six biggest islands. They predict it will expand inland towards higher elevations as the climate warms. 

Infection can cause a rare form of meningitis, and symptoms are not usually seen until 1 to 3 weeks after exposure to the parasite, according to the Hawaii Department of Health. As the disease affects the brain and spinal cord, symptoms may include severe headaches and stiffness of neck, was well as tingling or pain in the skin.

Infection occurs through ingesting the parasitic larvae, which can be found on snails and in the feces of rats.

Researchers recommend to avoid handling raw or live snails and slugs, and to wash hands after coming into contact with them. They also recommend inspecting and washing produce thoroughly, and to eliminate snails, slugs, and rats near the home.

"We encourage the public to buy local and support Hawaii's economy but, at the same time, to be vigilant about washing produce, especially to inspect and wash greens leaf by leaf," said Jaynee Kim, who was the lead author on the study, and is a malacology researcher at the Bishop Museum. "Buying and planting native plants instead of non-native plants can also help keep invasive snail hosts from being introduced and spread throughout the islands.”

Almost 1,300 snails and slugs representing 37 species across the islands were tested using molecular techniques. While the parasite was not detected on all islands, researchers say it may possibly be present. 

Research found that incidences of the disease are currently expanding through the tropics and subtropics. 

Robert Cowie, senior author on the study, and research professor at UH Manoa says it's important for people to know what the risks are in order to prevent animal and human infection.

"Remember that it is not possible to say that rat lungworm is absent from locations where we did not detect it," said Cowie. "One can never do a totally comprehensive survey of all snails present in Hawaii, so people must not be complacent and assume, for instance, that based on this study rat lungworm is not in their yards.”