This is the first time in the history of medicine that this worm has been found in the human body.
Usually it parasitizes on large snakes and it was believed that it is not dangerous for humans.
“Oh my God, you won’t believe what I just found in this woman’s brain – it’s alive and writhing,” said neurosurgeon Hari Priya Bandi of Canberra Hospital when he called fellow infectious disease doctor Sanjai Senanayaka.
An unnamed 64-year-old woman was admitted to a hospital in South East New South Wales at the end of January 2021. She complained of prolonged (three weeks) abdominal pain and diarrhea, as well as coughing, chills, and heavy night sweats.
Doctors have been trying to treat her for a long time, but by 2022, new symptoms have only been added to her symptoms – regular forgetfulness and depression. Then she was finally sent to a Canberra hospital to have an MRI scan of her brain there.
And there a big surprise awaited the neurosurgeon – a live and active parasitic worm.
“A neurosurgeon, of course, did not think that he would see this when he went for this procedure. Neurosurgeons regularly deal with infections in the brain, but such a discovery happens once in a career. Nobody expected to find this,” says infectious disease specialist Sanjai Senanayake.
All the qualified doctors of the hospital immediately gathered for a meeting and began to discuss what kind of worm it was and how to help the patient. They had to leaf through special books to find the kind of worm that had settled in the woman’s brain, but even that did not help.
“We turned to the textbooks, looking at different types of roundworms that can cause neurological invasions and diseases,” says Senanayake. When the search proved fruitless, doctors turned to outside experts for help.
“Canberra is a small place, so we sent the worm, which was still alive, directly to the laboratory of a scientist from CSIRO (State Association for Scientific and Applied Research), who had a lot of experience with parasites.
He just looked at our worm and said: “Oh my god, it’s Ophidascaris robertsi.”
Ophidascaris robertsi is a parasitic roundworm commonly found in snakes of the python family. And a patient at a hospital in Canberra turned out to be the world’s first case of the discovery of this parasite in the human body.
According to Senanayake, the patient became infected with this worm while gathering herbs near a local lake where carpet pythons live. Worm eggs could get on spinach along with python feces, and the patient became infected when she washed the spinach badly before eating.
Senanayake believes that other worms, in addition to what settled in the brain, could get into other internal organs, such as the liver. Which caused the patient to have an upset stomach and abdominal pain.
Special medicines were chosen with great care to kill these worms, making sure that these potent drugs did not damage the brain and other organs. The patient tolerated the medical treatment well.
“That poor patient was so courageous and wonderful. Nobody wants to be the first patient in the world with a python parasite worm in their body, and we really take our hats off to her.”
According to Senanayake, after the brain surgery, the patient is recovering, although she is still under observation in the hospital.
Doctors are now checking to see if she had a severely weakened immune system, which is why this type of worm was able to gain a foothold in her body.
This unique case was published in the September issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases .