It was a normal day for Dr. Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious diseases specialist at Canberra Hospital before he received a call from one of his colleagues telling him that she had just found a worm inside a woman’s brain – and that it was still wriggling and alive.
According to Dr. Hari Priya Bandi, the neurosurgeon, she pulled out an 8-cm-long roundworm from the patient. Wanting a second opinion on the case, she subsequently called her hospital colleagues.
The 64-year-old patient was a woman from New South Wales. She was first admitted to the hospital in early 2021 after suffering several weeks of diarrhea, and abdominal pain, followed by night sweats, fever, and constant dry cough.
By 2022, she had developed two new symptoms – depression and forgetfulness. This led her physician to refer her to Canberra Hospital, where she was given an MRI scan of her brain. The scan ultimately revealed abnormalities, which would require brain surgery.
At the time, however, the neurosurgeon had no idea that there was a live, wriggling worm inside her brain. While they normally deal with infections in the brain, such a case is a once-in-a-career finding.
Upon discovering the worm, the hospital team quickly came together to determine the species, which would lead them to the correct medical treatment. They went through textbooks, looking up all possible roundworms that could invade the brain tissue and cause disease but were unable to find an answer so they turned to experts for help.
The team subsequently sent the live worm to a scientist at CSIRO, who is very experienced with parasites. Within minutes of looking at the specimen, he identified the worm as Ophidascaris Robertsi, a type of roundworm that typically infects python snakes.
This marks the world’s first case of the worm infecting a human.
According to the patient, she lives near a lake area that’s inhabited by pythons. While she had no direct contact with the animals, she often collected native grasses from the area for cooking. The scientists and doctors involved with her case believe that a snake may have shed the parasitic worm via its feces into the wild grass.
The patient was likely infected after touching the grass and transferring the eggs to her kitchen utensils or food, or after ingesting the greens.
Seeing as how the larvae could have invaded other organs, the patient will require ongoing medical treatment. However, doctors will need to pay extra attention as no patient has ever been treated for the Ophidascaris Robertsi worm before. Specialists say some medications can trigger inflammation in the organs as the larvae start to die off.
Because of this, the patient will require additional medications to counteract the potential adverse effects.