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Doctors pulled a live, squirming eight-centimeter parasite from an Australian woman’s brain after she caught it for the first time from a virtual world carpet python.

A 64-year-old woman from south-eastern NSW was admitted to a local hospital in 2021 after three weeks of diarrhea and abdominal pain, followed by a persistent dry cough, fever and night sweats.

A larval sample of ophidascaris robertsi was extracted from the brain of an Australian woman.Credit: Canberra Health

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

When doctors performed brain surgery to investigate, they found an eight-centimeter roundworm, ophidascaris robertsi, which scientists believed to be the first ever found in a human.

Roundworms are common in carpet pythons and usually live in the animal’s esophagus and stomach before the parasite eggs are excreted in the feces.

The researchers who identified the parasite believed the woman became infected when she picked and cooked the greens – a type of native grass – she found by a lake near her home.

Ophidascaris robertsi larval specimen extracted from female brain.

Ophidascaris robertsi larval specimen extracted from female brain.Credit: Canberra Health

The greens were likely entwined with a parasite shed by the python, and the researchers suspected there were larvae in other female organs – including the lungs and liver.

“This is the first case of ophidascaris in humans that has been described in the world,” said infectious disease expert and study co-author Dr. Sanjaya Senanayaka.

“As far as we know, this is also the first case involving the brain of any mammalian species, human or otherwise.

“Typically, the larvae are found in small mammals and marsupials that are eaten by the python, allowing the life cycle to be completed in the snake.”

The discovery highlighted the importance of thorough washing of fed food and the dangers of transmitting diseases and infections from animals to humans, Senanayake said.

The woman has been out of the hospital for several months and is living in the community, with infectious disease and brain specialists continuing to monitor her.

“This ophidascaris infection is not transmitted between humans, so it will not cause a pandemic like SARS, COVID-19 or Ebola,” Senanayake said.

The worm is known to infect native carpet pythons.

The worm is known to infect native carpet pythons.Credit: Allieca

“However, the snake and the parasite are found in other parts of the world, so it is likely that other cases will be identified in other countries in the coming years.

“I cannot express enough our admiration for this woman who has shown patience and courage throughout this process.”

In the past three decades, about 30 infections have emerged worldwide, and about 75 percent of them have been zoonotic, meaning they could jump from animals to humans, Senanayake said.

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.

Their findings will be published in a journal Emerging infectious diseases.


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