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Doctors find snake worm wriggling in Australian woman's brain: What you need to know

The nauseating find in an Australian woman's brain has left people asking, 'Could it happen to me?'

Doctors have pulled a live and wriggling 8cm worm from an Australian woman's brain after she caught the parasite from a carpet python. While there's no need to rush out for an MRI, one doctor warns it might not be an isolated incident.

What you need to know

  • In 2021, a 64-year-old woman in NSW started experiencing night sweats, diarrhoea, tummy pain, and a cough.

  • When she developed forgetfulness and depression, the doctors gave her an MRI and discovered a lump.

  • ANU infectious disease expert Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake told Yahoo News surgeons expected to find cancer or an abscess, not a living worm.

  • It’s believed the patient contracted the worm after eating foraged leaves that were contaminated with poo from a carpet python.

🤔 Should I be worried?

Since the discovery, Associate Professor Senanayake has had quite a few people asking if they should get MRIs. His answer has been "no". But he does acknowledge a valid cause for concern.

This is just the latest example of an infection that has transferred from animals to humans. And while this one can't be transferred between humans, other zoonotic infections like coronavirus, HIV and Ebola can.

They are all signs that humankind is encroaching on wild spaces and increasing the chances of catching new diseases.

So the best way to avoid attracting your own brain worm? Always wash your fruit and vegetables after gardening or foraging.

❗ It's hard to believe but...

  • Even touching wildflowers can pose an infection risk if you later put your hands near your mouth.

  • In 30 years, three-quarters of the 30 new infectious diseases discovered in humans were transferred from animals.

🗣️ What are they saying

Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake, ANU and Canberra Hospital infectious disease expert: “We're encroaching on previously untouched environments, allowing humans, domestic animals, wild animals, and flora all to be interacted with in a way that we haven't been doing before. So we'll see more and more of these types of infections appearing.”

Associate Professor Karina Kennedy, ANU Medical School: “People who garden or forage for food should wash their hands after gardening and touching foraged products. Any food used for salads or cooking should also be thoroughly washed, and kitchen surfaces and cutting boards, wiped downed and cleaned after use.

Left - the worm in a jar. Right - an MRI of the woman's brain showing a highlighted section where the worm was.
The worm was removed from the patient’s right frontal lobe. Source: Emerging Infectious Diseases

⏭️ What's next?

Associate Professor Senanayake hopes his team's world-first discovery could lead to increased awareness of this worm's ability to live in humans.

While the likelihood of becoming infected is low, the parasite is spread across the globe, so there could be more people whose symptoms have not yet been diagnosed.

🗞️ Read more:

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