A parasitic worm was found wriggling in the brain of a 64-year-old Australian woman suffering from a “mystery illness,” a neurosurgeon said on Tuesday.
Surgeon Hari Priya Bandi discovered the 3-inch worm inside the patient’s skull during a biopsy at Canberra Hospital in June 2022 and plucked the parasite out with forceps.
“I just thought: ‘What is that? It doesn’t make any sense. But it’s alive and moving,’” Bandi told the Canberra Times newspaper. “It continued to move with vigor. We all felt a bit sick.”
The worm was identified as the larva of an Australian native roundworm named Ophidascaris robertsi. The worm, commonly found in carpet pythons, was not previously known to be a human parasite.
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Bandi and Canberra infectious diseases physician Sanjaya Senanayake authored an article about the medical case in the latest edition of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
The patient had been suffering for over a year from a variety of symptoms.
A year before the creature was discovered in her brain, the patient had been admitted to her local hospital in southeast New South Wales state with symptoms including abdominal pain, diarrhea, a dry cough and night sweats.
She was later admitted to Canberra Hospital after suffering for three months with symptoms of forgetfulness and worsening depression.
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When scans showed changes in her brain, doctors decided to perform a brain biopsy, which Senanayake said was expected to reveal a cancer or an abscess.
The discovery of the wriggling parasite left everyone in the operating theater “absolutely stunned,” Senanayake said.
“This patient had been treated … for what was a mystery illness that we thought ultimately was a immunological [sic] condition because we hadn’t been able to find a parasite before and then out of nowhere, this big lump appeared in the frontal part of her brain,” the infectious diseases physician said, according to The Associated Press.
The patient was grateful to know what had been causing her symptoms, and six months after the worm was removed, her neuropsychiatric symptoms had improved but persisted, according to the journal article.
“She’s done OK, but obviously because this is a new infection, we’re keeping a close eye on her,” Senanayake told Australia’s Ten Network television.
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Scientists later learned the woman lives near a carpet python habitat, and, though she had no direct contact with the snakes, scientists hypothesize that she consumed the worms’ eggs from native vegetation called warragal greens that she forages for to cook or from her contaminated hands.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.