The surgery, conducted last year in Canberra, involved extracting the “string-like structure” from the patient’s affected frontal lobe. The woman had exhibited a perplexing array of symptoms, beginning with stomach discomfort, a persistent cough, and night sweats. These initially escalated into escalating forgetfulness and a profound sense of depression.
Remarkably, this crimson-hued parasite could have inhabited its unusual abode for up to two months.
Researchers are issuing a stark warning in light of this extraordinary case, underscoring the heightened threat of diseases and infections leaping from animals to humans.
Recounting the shocking moment, Dr. Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious diseases specialist at Canberra Hospital, revealed, “Everyone [in] that operating theatre got the shock of their life 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.”
He further emphasized, “Even if you take away the yuck factor, this is a new infection never documented before in a human being.”
The Ophidascaris robertsi roundworm is commonly associated with carpet pythons, which are non-venomous serpents widespread across Australia.
The prevailing hypothesis suggests that the woman likely contracted the roundworm after handling a native grass variety called Warrigal greens, found near a lake close to her residence.
Detailed in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, Australian parasitology expert Mehrab Hossain postulates that the woman inadvertently became an “accidental host” due to her use of foraged plants. These plants were tainted by python excrement and parasite eggs, subsequently employed in her cooking.
Initially admitted to the hospital in January 2021, a later scan unveiled an “atypical lesion within the right frontal lobe of the brain.” The cause of her condition, however, was only unveiled through a surgeon’s biopsy in June 2022.
Despite making medical history, she is on a path to recovery.
Intriguingly, Dr. Hossain notes, “The invasion of the brain by Ophidascaris larvae had not been reported previously.” She highlights the distinctive growth of the third-stage larva within the human host, as prior experimental studies had not demonstrated such development in domesticated animals like sheep, dogs, and cats.
Dr. Senanayake, who also holds the position of associate professor of medicine at the Australian National University (ANU), emphasizes the profound implications of this case.
The ANU team’s research reveals the emergence of 30 new infection types in the past three decades. Alarmingly, three-quarters of these are categorized as zoonotic, indicating infectious diseases that traverse from animals to humans.
Dr. Senanayake warns, “As the human population expands, we inevitably encroach upon animal habitats. This recurrent phenomenon is evident in instances like the Nipah virus, which transitioned from wild bats to domesticated pigs and eventually to humans. It echoes in the progression of coronaviruses, such as Sars and Mers, originating from bats, then potentially transmitting to secondary animals before making the jump to humans.”
He emphasizes, “Even as the grip of Covid gradually loosens, it remains pivotal for epidemiologists and governments to ensure robust infectious disease surveillance.”