A group of medical professionals uncovered an 8cm-long parasitic worm residing in the brain of a 64-year-old woman from New South Wales. The patient complained of forgetfulness and depression before the professionals made the strange discovery.

The patient presented a range of symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhoea, dry cough, fever and night sweats before she was admitted to a local hospital in January 2021. The symptoms were the onset of forgetfulness and depression in 2022 which puzzled medical experts.

An MRI scan was done leading to surgery.

Lead neurosurgeon Dr Hari Priya Bandi spearheaded the intricate procedure to extract a parasitic worm from the patient’s brain. The 8cm-long roundworm named Ophidascaris robertsi, typically found in pythons, raised questions about how such a phenomenon could occur.

Dr Bandi sought insights from colleagues including Dr Sanjaya Senanayake to figure out the connection between the parasitic roundworm and the patient’s symptoms. As of now, the link between the presence of the roundworm and the woman’s forgetfulness and depression remains unclear.

The patient is a resident living near a lake populated by carpet pythons. However, she did not claim any experience of direct contact with the reptiles. The medical team hypothesised that the patient’s proximity to the python-inhabited lake may have been a factor in her exposure to the parasite. The postulation is that the python sheds the parasite through its faeces onto the native grasses in the area, including Warrigal Greens, which the patient was known to collect for cooking purposes.

The pathway of transmission could have occurred when the patient came into contact with the contaminated grass, inadvertently transferring the parasite’s eggs onto her food, utensils, or even her hands. Alternatively, the possibility of ingestion of contaminated greens remains under consideration.

Ongoing monitoring and research efforts are undertaken to comprehensively understand the dynamics of this unique case.

The case has also prompted researchers to explore the potential link between her weakened immune system due to a pre-existing medical condition and the unexpected infection. The details of this extraordinary case have been published in the September edition of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases in humans stem from animal origins. Dr Senanayake stressed the critical importance of understanding the risks associated with diseases that traverse from animals to humans.

Over the past three decades, approximately 30 new infections have been identified worldwide. Three-fourths of emerging infections globally fall into the category of zoonotic diseases, signifying their origin in animals before being transmitted to humans. This category includes notable instances like Coronaviruses.

However, the Ophidascaris infection is not transmissible between humans, unlike diseases such as Covid-19 or Ebola.

Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases physician not directly involved in this case, underlined an essential concern: some instances of zoonotic diseases might remain undiagnosed, especially if they are rare and physicians lack awareness of the specific symptoms to watch for. Individuals may also succumb to these illnesses without the root cause of their ailment identified.