An 8cm (3in) worm has been discovered alive in the brain of an Australian woman, according to scientists.
During surgery in Canberra last year, the “string-like structure” was extracted from the patient’s damaged frontal lobe.
The woman had a “unusual constellation of symptoms” that included stomach pain, a cough, and night sweats, which progressed to growing forgetfulness and despair.
The crimson parasite may have stayed for two months.
The case, according to researchers, demonstrates the growing risk of diseases and infections being carried from animals to humans.
“Everyone [in] that operating theatre got the shock of their lives when [the surgeon] took some forceps to pick up an abnormality and the abnormality turned out to be a wriggling, live 8cm light red worm,” said Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious diseases doctor at Canberra Hospital.
“Even if you take away the ick factor, this is a new infection that has never been documented in a human being.”
Ophidascaris robertsi roundworm is widespread in carpet pythons, which are non-venomous snakes found throughout Australia.
According to scientists, the woman most likely caught the roundworm while gathering Warrigal greens, a variety of native grass near where she resided.
Mehrab Hossain, an Australian parasitologist, speculated in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases that the woman became a “accidental host” after cooking with foraged herbs infected with python feces and parasite eggs.
In late January 2021, the patient was admitted to the hospital. A scan later discovered “an atypical lesion within the brain’s right frontal lobe.” In June 2022, the cause of her ailment was found by a surgeon’s knife during a biopsy.
Despite making medical history, she is recuperating well.
“The invasion of the brain by Ophidascaris larvae had not been reported previously,” writes Dr. Hossain. “The growth of the third-stage larva in the human host is notable, given that previous experimental studies have not demonstrated larval development in domesticated animals, such as sheep, dogs, and cats.”
Dr. Senanayake, an associate professor of medicine at the Australian National University (ANU), told the BBC that the case should serve as a wake-up call.
According to the ANU team, 30 new forms of illnesses have emerged in the previous 30 years. Three-quarters are zoonotic diseases, which are infectious diseases that have spread from animals to humans.
“It just goes to show that as the human population grows, we get closer and encroach on animal habitats.” This is a recurring problem, whether it’s Nipah virus that has crossed from wild bats to farmed pigs and then into humans, or a coronavirus like Sars or Mers that has jumped from bats to maybe a secondary animal and then into humans.”
“Even though Covid is now slowly fading, it is critical for epidemiologists… and governments to ensure they have good infectious disease surveillance in place.”