When a 64-year-old Australian woman was sent to hospital for brain surgery, neurosurgeon Dr Hari Priya Pandey hadn’t expected to remove a live 8-centimeter (3-inch) parasitic worm that was writhing between her forceps.
“I only came across worms using my not-so-good gardening skills,” Pandey told CNN about the world’s first discovery of a live worm inside a human brain… “I find them terrifying and that’s not something I deal with at all.” .
Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious disease expert at Canberra Hospital, told CNN the discovery has unleashed a mad race to find out exactly what the parasite is.
A colleague in a hospital lab managed to reach out to an animal parasitologist at a government scientific research agency just 20 minutes away – and found his unexpected answer.
“We were able to send the live worm to him, and he was able to look at it and recognize it right away,” Senanayake said.
Molecular tests confirmed this Ovidaskaris Robertsi, A Roundworms are commonly found in snakes, according to a press release from the Australian National University and Canberra Hospital.
“As far as we know, this is also the first case involving the brain of any mammalian species, whether human or otherwise,” said Senanayake, who is also a professor at the Australian National University.
Researchers say the patient lived near a lake area inhabited by carpet snakes in southeastern New South Wales. Although she had no direct contact with the reptiles, she likely contracted the roundworm after foraging for waregal greens, a local leafy vegetable, which she cooked and ate.
The doctors and scientists involved in her case hypothesized that the carpet snake may have spread the parasite through its feces onto green spaces, which the patient then touched and contaminated with food or other cooking utensils.
The woman was initially admitted to a local hospital in late January 2021 after suffering for three weeks with abdominal pain and diarrhoea, followed by a persistent dry cough, fever and night sweats.
After several months, her symptoms developed into forgetfulness and depression, and she was sent to a hospital in the Australian capital, where an MRI scan revealed something unusual in the right frontal lobe of her brain.
What usually happens is that carpet snakes in Australia get pregnant Ovidascaris Robertsi And dropping parasite eggs in them they faeces, and is spread through plants eaten by small mammals and marsupials. At some point, the snakes also eat those infected animals, and then the parasite lives inside the snake, completing the cycle.
In this case, Senanayake said, the patient is likely to be an accidental host of the worm. The parasite is very invasive and it is suspected that its larvae or young were present in other organs in the woman’s body, including the lungs and liver.
Senanayake said the case highlights the growing risk of disease and infection transmission from animals to humans, especially as humans encroach deeper into animal habitats.
“There are more opportunities for humans, pets and wild animals to interact with each other and with the plants that are out there. This is just another sign that more new infections will be seen in the future,” Senanayake said.
He said that about 30 new infections were detected in the world during the past three decades. Of those emerging infections, about 75% were zoonoses, meaning there was transmission from the animal world to the human world – including coronaviruses.
“this Ovidascaris It is not transmissible between people, so it will not cause a pandemic like SARS, COVID-19 or Ebola. However, the python and the parasite have been found in other parts of the world, so it is likely that more cases will be identified in the coming years in other countries.
“The other message from this situation is about foraging. People who are feeding should wash their hands after touching forage products. Any forage used in salads or cooking should also be washed thoroughly.
This case in Australia is very different from recent reports of people getting excruciating headaches because of the presence of tapeworm larvae in their brains.
This condition is known as Neurocysticercosiswhich can cause neurological symptoms when larval cysts develop in the brain.
People become infected with the parasite after swallowing eggs found in the stool of a person with intestinal tapeworm, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 1,000 cases are reported each year in the United States alone.
A study last year revealed that a 25-year-old Australian woman had tapeworm larvae in her brain, after suffering from a headache that lasted for more than a week.
An MRI scan of her brain led doctors to believe a tumor might be causing the pain, but after they operated on and removed the lesion, they discovered it was actually a cyst full of tapeworm larvae.
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