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Live parasitic worm plucked from Australian woman's brain

August 29, 2023

Doctors in Australia have found and removed a live parasitic worm, roughly 8 centimeters long, from a woman's brain. It's the first known case of its kind.

A parasitic worm usually found in snakes in a plastic jar after it was removed from a woman's brain
A veterinary expert immediately recognized the worm and its distinctive red color when shown the unusual find, Bandi told DWImage: Canberra Health Services/AP/picture alliance

Scientists this week published information on an unprecedented case in Australia, where they found and extracted a live parasitic worm from the brain of a woman in Canberra. 

The worm was some 8 centimeters (just over 3 inches) long and is a roundworm most commonly seen in python species, known as Ophidascaris robertsi

It was found in the brain of a 64-year-old woman after she had complained of a variety of changing symptoms and afflictions over a prolonged period.

'Just get it out of my forceps!'

Neurosurgeon Hari Priya Bandi found and removed the parasite with forceps during a biopsy. 

"I used tumor-holding forceps and lifted out something that I definitely was not expecting: a linear, squiggling line," Bandi told DW on Tuesday.

"And my junior doctor said, 'is that an artery?', because that's what it looked like. And I said, 'it's not an artery, we're nowhere near any artery!' And I noticed it was moving and I went, 'just get it out of my forceps!' So we rapidly put it in a pathology pot, and it was a vigorously wriggling worm."

Worm removed from woman's brain

Asked whether it was fair to assume the worm had been moving around inside, Bandi said it was and that their scans demonstrated as much. 

The woman's symptoms had started as lung, liver and adominal problems, Bandi said, but evolved towards problems like depression, presumably as the animal's activities kept affecting different parts of the brain. 

Her psychiatrist had conducted CT scans in which what was later identified as the worm was first visible, and later MRI scans to prepare for the procedure had then shown how the abnormality was moving.   

A known possibility, but an unprecedented find

"When you operate on someone's brain and you take a biopsy or something, you never expect to encounter something living," Doctor Sanjaya Senanayake, who co-authored the study with Bandi, told Reuters. "[It] was certainly something we'll never forget." 

The paper on the case was published in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal on Monday. 

Bandi and Senanayake speculated that the woman might have been exposed to the parasite when foraging for wild grasses to make a dish similar to spinach, when she might have been exposed to python feces. 

The worm was successfully removed last year. The woman, whom Senanayake praised as being "very courageous and patient," returned to normal life after the operation to remove the parasite, but medical professionals have continued to monitor her. 

"Obviously, because this was an unusual case at so many levels, we're keeping a close eye on her and keeping in touch," Senanayake said. 

Senanayake said the discovery came as a surprise, but that they were aware of the possibility, particularly as human and animal habitats continue to overlap more and more. 

"Other snakes around the world carry this parasite, so it is quite likely that other new cases will be documented," he said. "So hopefully, raising awareness of that will help other healthcare workers around the world."

msh/ab (AFP, Reuters)