Python parasite found in Australian woman’s brain

Human neural larva migrans Linked to ophidascaris robertsi ascarid.

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Researchers at The Australian National University and the Canberra Hospital found something unusual. They discovered a new kind of sickness caused by a parasite. This is the first time this has happened to a human. The researchers found a live worm from a carpet python inside the brain of a 64-year-old Australian woman. This is a significant discovery in the world of science.

Leading ANU and Canberra Hospital infectious disease expert and co-author of the study, Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake, said, “This is the first-ever human case of Ophidascaris to be described worldwide. “To our knowledge, this is also the first case to involve the brain of any mammalian species, human or otherwise. Normally, the larvae from the roundworm are found in small mammals and marsupials, which are eaten by the python, allowing the life cycle to complete itself in the snake.”

Ophidascaris Roberts roundworms are usually found in carpet pythons. They live in the python’s throat and stomach and lay their eggs in waste. When these roundworms get into humans, they are accidental guests.

These roundworms are tough and can live in many different places. In people, they can cause tummy pain, throwing up, diarrhea, loss of appetite and weight, feeling hot, and tiredness.

The researchers say the woman, who lived in southeastern New South Wales in Australia, probably got the roundworm by picking a kind of grass called Warrigal greens near a lake near her home. The python had left the parasite in its waste near the lake.

The woman used the Warrigal greens to cook and might have gotten the parasite by touching the grass or eating the greens.

The woman’s symptoms started in January 2021, according to Canberra Hospital’s Director of Clinical Microbiology and Associate Professor at the ANU Medical School, Karina Kennedy.

“At first, she had tummy aches and diarrhea. Then she got a fever, started coughing, and had trouble breathing. Looking back, these problems were probably because tiny roundworm babies moved from her tummy to other body parts like the liver and lungs. They checked samples from her breath and took a small piece of her lung for testing, but they didn’t find any parasites,” the doctor explained.

Back then, finding these tiny larvae, which had never been seen before causing sickness in people, was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

In 2022, she started changing how she remembered things and thought. They did a special scan of her brain and found an unusual spot in the front part of the right side of her brain.

The patient first went to a local hospital in late January 2021 because she had stomach pain and diarrhea for three weeks. After that, she got a cough that didn’t go away, a fever, and sweaty nights. By 2022, she was having trouble with her memory and felt sad, so the doctors scanned her brain.

A doctor who works on brain problems at Canberra Hospital looked at the strange thing inside her brain. That’s when they found a surprising eight-centimeter-long roundworm. The experts who knew about parasites later confirmed that it was a roundworm, first by how it looked and then by studying its tiny parts.

Associate Professor Senanayake said this case teaches us that diseases can pass from animals to humans. This is especially important as we live closer to animals and share where we live with them more and more.

“In the last 30 years, around 30 new infections have been worldwide. About 75% of these new infections have come from animals. Even things like coronaviruses started this way,” he explained.

“This Ophidascaris infection doesn’t spread between people so that it won’t become a big worldwide problem like SARS, COVID-19, or Ebola. But this snake and parasite are found in other places around the world. So, we might find more cases like this in different countries soon.”

Associate Professor Karina Kennedy said the most important thing to learn from this case is about being careful with our food, primarily when we work in gardens or find food from nature where animals might be around.

“People who garden or find food should wash their hands after touching plants and things they find. Any food we use for salads or cooking should be cleaned well. After using knives and cutting boards in the kitchen, we should also clean them properly,” she said.

The doctors who study infectious diseases and brains are still keeping an eye on the patient.

“It’s not easy or good to be the first person in the world with something like this. We admire this woman for being patient and brave through this whole thing,” Associate Professor Senanayake added.

The scientists wrote about their discovery in a journal called “Emerging Infectious Diseases.”

The researchers included scientists and doctors who know about infectious diseases, the immune system, and brain surgeries. They came from ANU, Canberra Health Services, CSIRO, the University of Melbourne, and the University of Sydney.

Journal Reference:

  1. Mehrab E Hossain, Karina J. Kennedy et al., Human Neural Larva Migrans Caused by Ophidascaris robertsi Ascarid. Emerging Infectious Diseases. DOI: 10.3201/eid2909.230351.