A rendering of a parasitic roundworm.SCIEPRO/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images
In 2021, a woman in Australia went to the local hospital with abdominal pain, diarrhea, and a cough.
Her symptoms worsened in 2022 and included forgetfulness and depression.
Doctors found a live worm in her brain. They think she was infected from eating foraged greens.
Doctors concluded that she had pneumonia and prescribed her medication. But she kept returning with worsening symptoms: First, a fever and a persistent cough later in 2021, then depression and forgetfulness in 2022.
Eventually, doctors scanned her brain and saw a lesion that needed a biopsy. During the surgery, however, they found something unexpected: A long, string-like object. When they removed it, they realized it was a live, 3-inch parasitic roundworm — the first of its kind to ever be reported in a human.
Photos of the patient’s brain scan and the extracted roundworm.Hossain, M., Kennedy, K. J., Wilson, H. L., Spratt, D., Koehler, A., Gasser, R. B….Senanayake, S. N. (2023). Human Neural Larva Migrans Caused by Ophidascaris robertsi Ascarid. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 29(9), 1900-1903. https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2909.230351.
She likely got infected from foraging wild greens
According to the case study, which was published in the September issue of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, this type of worm — Ophidascaris robertsi — is usually found in carpet pythons, which live near the patient’s home.
While the patient never had direct contact with a snake, she did forage wild greens near her house, known as Warrigal greens or New Zealand spinach, to use in cooking. Doctors hypothesize that worm larvae were shed through the python’s feces and then consumed by the woman through contaminated greens, hands, or kitchen equipment.
A carpet python.artas/Getty Images
Treatment involved killing off more potential larvae
To treat the patient, doctors gave her multiple medications to kill other larvae that could be living in her organs. According to The Guardian, extra care had to be taken as the patient was the first person to ever be treated for this species of roundworm. For example, some medications that could kill the larvae could trigger damaging side effects like inflammation.
The patient is still being monitored, The Guardian reported, as the worm can live in animal hosts for years. The doctors are also trying to figure out if her preexisting medical conditions (diabetes and hypothyroidism) played a role in her getting infected.
While some of the woman’s symptoms have improved, the case study said, her neuropsychiatric symptoms have still persisted.
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