The world’s first: a living worm discovered in an Australian woman’s brain

In a groundbreaking development, scientists have made the unique discovery of an 8-cm (3-inch) worm found alive in an Australian woman’s brain. The surgical procedure took place in Canberra last year, during which the “string-like structure” was extracted from the patient’s damaged frontal lobe. Initially, the woman exhibited an “unusual constellation of symptoms,” including stomach pain, coughing, and night sweats, which later progressed to memory loss and depression. The presence of the red parasite could have lasted for as long as two months.

Researchers are now sounding the alarm, emphasising the heightened risk of diseases and infections being transmitted from animals to humans. Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious diseases specialist at Canberra Hospital, recounted the surprise and shock experienced by everyone in the operating theatre when the surgeon used forceps to pick out the “abnormality,” only to discover the wriggling live worm.

The Ophidascaris robertsi roundworm, commonly found in carpet pythons, non-venomous snakes native to Australia, is believed to be the source of the infestation. The woman likely encountered the roundworm after collecting warrigal greens, a type of native grass, near a lake close to her residence. This foraged vegetation was possibly contaminated with python faeces and parasite eggs, leading to her inadvertent infection.

The Australian expert in parasitology, Mehrab Hossain, suggests that the woman became an “accidental host” due to the consumption of the contaminated plants. The patient was admitted to the hospital in January 2021, and a subsequent scan unveiled an “atypical lesion” within her brain. The definitive cause of her condition was only revealed during a biopsy performed in June 2022.

Despite this unprecedented incident, the woman is on a steady path to recovery. The case highlights the growth of new infections over the last three decades, with three-quarters of them being zoonotic, indicating the transmission of infectious diseases from animals to humans. The expansion of human populations into animal habitats raises concerns about this issue, as seen with instances such as the Nipah virus or the transmission of coronaviruses from bats to humans. Consequently, experts underscore the need for robust infectious disease surveillance and proactive measures by governments to ensure public health.

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