The Health Department is stopping short of calling the rise in rat lung worm cases here in Hawaii an epidemic, but they are saying they are very concerned.

As they continue their investigations, the state is urging people to be proactive when handling their food.

So far, 9 cases of the disease have been confirmed on Maui and Hawaii Island.

The state is also looking into other possible cases, as well as what’s causing the uptick.

Rat lungworm disease starts out as a parasitic worm that invades the human brain.

The worm is carried by rats, then spread through snails or slugs that crawl onto fruits or vegetables.

Hawaii Island has seen a rise in rat lungworm disease cases in recent years. But why has it spread to Maui?

“It’s different than usual. It’s new. Investigations are pretty intense there,” said epidemiologist Joe Elm.

He suspects two things:

Big Island and Maui are seeing more “semi-slugs” – which spreads the disease carried by rats.

“It goes hand in hand with the rat population. It goes up and down with the weather. On the outer islands we see fairly big populations in the wild when there’s lots of rain and stuff for them to consume,” Elm explained.

The epidemiologist also suspects the popularity of eating organic.

“A lot of people are going for organic produce. And fruits and vegetables. I think the lack of pesticides on these crops are just an invitation for insects. Like… here’s lunch! When you buy these products, we have to be careful.”

We went to the health department’s sanitation branch to find out what’s the best way to protect your produce.

Supervisor Lance Wong says first things first: Wash your hands.

“You don’t wanna add more contamination to the vegetables,” warned Wong.

The sanitation supervisor says all you need is cool running water and patience.

“Just thorough rinsing. Simple, do the best you can. Dry it off and you’re ready,” said Wong.

If you want to take it a step further, the DOH also recommends using a brush to clean off vegetables. Take note to peel off the leaves of lettuce or stems off broccoli to ensure snails or slugs are not hiding.