A recent case of a live worm found in the brain of an Australian woman has sparked worldwide interest and concern. The worm, identified as Ophidascaris robertsi, is a parasitic roundworm that normally infects carpet pythons, a non-venomous snake species native to Australia. This is the first time that this worm has been reported in a human host, and the first time that any worm has been found alive in the brain of any mammal.
How Did the Australian Woman Get a Worm Inside Her Brain?
The 64-year-old woman, who was born in England but lived near a lake area inhabited by carpet pythons in southeastern New South Wales, Australia, had been suffering from various symptoms for several months before the worm was discovered. She had abdominal pain, diarrhea, cough, fever, night sweats, forgetfulness and depression.
A brain scan revealed an atypical lesion in the right frontal lobe of her brain, which prompted a biopsy surgery at Canberra Hospital.
During the surgery, neurosurgeon Dr. Hari Priya Bandi was shocked to find a wriggling, 8-centimeter (3-inch) long light red worm between her forceps. She extracted the worm alive from the woman’s brain and sent it to a laboratory for identification.
With the help of an animal parasitology expert from a governmental scientific research agency, the worm was confirmed to be Ophidascaris robertsi by molecular tests.
How did the woman get infected by this worm? According to Dr. Mehrab Hossain, an Australian expert in parasitology who wrote about the case in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, the most likely scenario is that she became an accidental host after foraging Warrigal greens, a native leafy vegetable, which she cooked and ate.
The greens might have been contaminated by python feces and parasite eggs, which she then ingested or touched and cross-contaminated with food or other cooking utensils.
The worm then hatched in her intestine and migrated through her bloodstream to her brain, where it grew and caused damage to her frontal lobe tissue. The worm could have been in her brain for up to two months before it was removed. The woman is recovering well after the surgery and is receiving anti-parasitic medication.
Could Australian Brain Worms Start a Zoonotic Pandemic?
The case of the Australian brain worm is a rare and remarkable example of a zoonotic infection, which is an infectious disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans. According to Dr. Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious disease doctor at Canberra Hospital and an associate professor of medicine at the Australian National University (ANU), this case is a warning of the increased danger of zoonotic diseases as human population grows and encroaches on animal habitats.
Dr. Sanjaya Senanayake points out that there have been 30 new types of infections have appeared in the last 30 years, and three-quarters of them are zoonotic. He cited examples such as Nipah virus that has gone from wild bats to domestic pigs and then into people, or coronaviruses like SARS or MERS that have jumped from bats into possibly a secondary animal, and then into humans.
Many doctors and scientists agree that more research is needed to understand how these parasites can adapt to new hosts and environments, and how to prevent and treat such infections.
People need to be much more careful when handling or consuming wild plants or animals, especially in areas where pythons or other potential carriers of parasites are present.