"It's like having a slow-moving bullet go through your brain," state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said of the effects of rat lungworm disease.
The worm can live in the human body for months, growing to lengths of up to an inch. It can cause a rare form of meningitis, which comes along with serious headaches, tingling or painful feelings in the skin or extremities, low-grade fever, and nausea and vomiting, according to the Health Department's Disease Investigation Branch. Damage to the brain is likely to be permanent, but it is rarely fatal, doctors explain.
There is no known treatment for the parasite, they say.
Hawaii Department of Health Spokeswoman Janice Okubo said that confirmed cases involve four Maui residents and two visitors to the island. According to a report by The Maui News, the visitors are a man and a woman from Northern California.
Experts note that the parasite can survive even if infected slugs are killed or burnt, as rats eat the remains regardless.
On Thursday night, state Department of Health and the Maui Invasive Species Committee held a community meeting at Hana to address concerns over the recent outbreak in East Maui. Experts are trying to determine the best way to deal with the infection. Until then, the best advice doctors give is to take the time to wash all vegetables thoroughly.
"I hope people really understand it's in their hands to prevent infection by properly washing all of the produce… regardless where they buy it from," says Hana Heath Executive Director Cheryl Vasconcellos.
Hawaii parents are also advised to educate children not to play with slugs, as contact with them might spread the disease.