Worm on brain: Doctors were shocked – and nauseous – when they found an 8cm parasite wiggling on a Canberra patient’s brain. Now experts reveals it wasn’t the only living thing ‘running around’ inside her

An infectious diseases doctor has revealed that a patient who was found to have an 8cm-long worm wriggling around her brain most likely had other larvae ‘running around’ inside her.

The 64-year-old woman from southeast NSW has recently become the first human to have a worm removed from her brain.

She was admitted to a local hospital in 2021 after suffering three weeks of diarrhea and abdominal pain, a constant dry cough, fever and night sweats.

She became depressed and forgetful before a neurosurgeon at Canberra Hospital found an abnormality in the right frontal lobe of her brain during an MRI scan in June, 2022.

When doctors performed brain surgery to investigate, they found the 8cm Ophidascaris robertsi roundworm, which scientists believed was the first to be found in a human.

The parasitic worm is only found in the guts of carpet pythons. It is believed the woman ate the eggs of the worm by eating native warrigal greens, which may have been contaminated with the faeces of a python.

After hatching in her body, the larvae made its way up to her brain, a fact medics suspect was due to medication she was taking that compromised her immune system. 

Dr Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious diseases expert at Canberra hospital, received a call from his colleague after the worm was found.

Medics were shocked to pull an 8cm live and wriggling parasitic worm from the 64-year-old woman’s brain 

‘They said ”you’ll never guess what they just found – an 8cm worm alive and wriggling so you’ll definitely need to get involved”,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.

‘We spent the next 16 hours trying to work out what it could’ve been.’

Dr Senanayake and his colleagues scoured textbooks trying to determine what type of roundworm had wiggled its way through her body.

They sent the worm to a CSIRO laboratory scientist experienced in parasites who was able to determine the worm was an Ophidascaris robertsi.

The physician said parasites have the ability to multiply and spread.

‘This patient almost certainly had more than one,’ he said, adding she would not have felt a wriggling sensation.

‘She had stomach pain and a cough and spots on her lungs and liver. 

‘In retrospect it was probably little larvae travelling and running around – but they would’ve definitely been smaller (than the 8cm worm).’

Medics took scans of the woman's brain after she reported becoming forgetful and increasingly depressed and they identified a lesion in the left side of the organ (white shaded spot) worthy of investigation

Medics took scans of the woman’s brain after she reported becoming forgetful and increasingly depressed and they identified a lesion in the left side of the organ (white shaded spot) worthy of investigation

The expert said it was hard to know what may have happened to the woman if the worm hadn’t been found given she is the first reported human case.

He said parasites are not interested in killing their hosts as they rely on their bodies to live.

‘Obviously there is that “yuck” factor. We all are somewhat horrified at the thought of this so you can imagine how she felt,’ Dr Senanayake said.

‘What I tell people in medicine is: you want to be the most boring patient in the world. 

‘Being a patient to be the first in the world with anything is something you don’t want.’

Infectious diseases physician at Canberra Hospital, Dr Sanjaya Senanayake said it's likely the woman had other larvae 'running around' inside her

Infectious diseases physician at Canberra Hospital, Dr Sanjaya Senanayake said it’s likely the woman had other larvae ‘running around’ inside her

The 64-year-old was sent home shortly after she received surgery and is recovering well.

Dr Senanayake said doctors are following up with the woman who has not needed to return to hospital since the worm was removed.

‘She’s been very patient and courageous,’ he said, adding she was sent home with four weeks worth of anti-parasite treatment.

While it’s too difficult to know how long the worm may have been inside the woman’s brain, Dr Senanayake said the type of larvae has been known to live inside small mammals like rodents for four years.

Dr Hari Priya Bandi was operating on the woman when she felt something ‘quite abnormal’ on the area of the brain where the MRI had shown a growth.

She then pulled out a ‘linear object’.

‘My immediate thought was it was some sort of wire, but then I realised it was moving,’ she told the ABC.

‘We all felt some wave of nausea, and put the thing into a pot where it was rapidly wiggling and trying to escape.’

Dr Bandi said the next thing she and her colleagues did was call infectious disease doctors to figure out the next step. 

Dr Senanayake and Dr Bandi have published their findings in a report in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

In the past 30 years, 30 infections have emerged with three quarters of those able to be passed from animals to humans.

‘Humans are encroaching on animal habitats, we’re interacting with domestic animals and wild animals and vegetation,’ he said.

‘There’s more opportunities for these types of infections to occur.’

The researchers who worked on the discovery are from the Australian National University, Canberra Health Services, CSIRO, the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney.

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