Australian scientists have discovered an 8 cm long living worm in a woman’s brain. It was removed from the patient’s frontal lobe during surgery in Canberra last year.
The woman sought medical attention in late January 2021, complaining of abdominal pain and diarrhea, a persistent dry cough, high fever, and sweating. The following year, the woman began complaining of forgetfulness and depression. She was referred to Canberra Hospital for an MRI scan of her brain, which revealed an “atypical lesion in the right frontal lobe of the brain” that required surgical intervention.
During the surgery, neurosurgeon Hari Priya Bandy removed an 8-centimeter red worm from the patient’s brain. “But of course the neurosurgeon was not expecting to find a wriggling worm,” said Sanjay Senanayake, an infectious disease physician at the Canberra hospital and a professor of medicine at the Australian National University. “Neurosurgeons deal with brain infections on a regular basis, but this finding was unique. No one expected to find something like this.”
After making an unexpected discovery, a group of hospital specialists gathered for a consultation to understand what kind of worm it was, where it came from, and most importantly – how to treat the patient. “We just turned to textbooks while studying different types of roundworms that can cause neurological invasion and disease,” says Senanayake.
Their search yielded no results, so they sought help from outside specialists. “Canberra is a small place, so we sent the worm, which was still alive, straight to the lab of a CSIRO scientist who has extensive experience with parasites,” Senanayake said. He immediately identified the uninvited guest as Ophidascaris robertsi – a roundworm commonly found in carpet pythons, non-venomous snakes that inhabit most of Australia. This is the first time this parasite has been detected in humans.
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It turns out that the patient lives near a lake where carpet pythons live. According to Senanayake, although she had no direct contact with snakes, she often collected local herbs near the lake to use in cooking. Doctors and scientists involved in the case suggest that the parasite may have entered the grass through the python’s feces. They believe the larvae may have gotten onto food or kitchen utensils through unwashed hands, and possibly onto vegetables.
According to Senanayake, this case underscores the danger of transmitting diseases and infections from animals to humans, especially as humans and animals begin to live closer together and their habitats increasingly overlap. “In the last 30 years, there have been about 30 new infections worldwide,” he says. “Of all the new infections that occur in the world, about 75% are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted from animals to humans. This includes coronaviruses.”
“Ophidascaris is not transmitted from person to person, so this case will not cause a pandemic like COVID or Ebola,” he continues. “However, this python and this parasite are found in other parts of the world, so it is very likely that other cases of the disease will be identified in other countries in the coming years.”
Infectious disease specialist Professor Peter Colignon, who was not involved in the patient’s treatment, said some cases of zoonotic diseases may go undiagnosed because they are rare and doctors do not know what to look for. “Sometimes people die without finding the cause of their illness,” he said. “You should be careful when you come into contact with animals and the environment, wash products thoroughly and cook food properly, and wear protective clothing, such as long sleeves, to avoid bites.”
The patient herself is recovering well, according to doctors, although she is still being closely monitored. Doctors are trying to understand whether her previous illness, which weakened her immune system, allowed the larvae to take hold in her body. The case was reported in the September issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases.