Clean, Separate, Cook, And Chill: A Cautionary Tale

Anti-Aging Medicine
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In January 2021 an Australian woman was admitted to her local hospital after 3 weeks of suffering with abdominal pain and diarrhea which was followed by a constant dry cough, fever, and night sweats. A year later her symptoms progressed to include depression and forgetfulness which prompted a referral to get an MRI of her brain, which revealed abnormalities that required surgery.

Neurosurgeons deal with infections and abnormalities in the brain on a regular basis, but this was something different, this was a once-in-a-career finding that no one could expect to find. In fact, this was the world’s first. A live and wriggling around 8cm long parasitic roundworm was removed from the patient, prompting the Canberra Hospital neurosurgeon to ask for advice from her colleagues on what to do next. 

First, they had to find out what kind of roundworm it was. Searching textbooks for the different types of roundworms that could cause neurological invasion and disease in a human provided no results, so they had to look for other experts for help. Thus, the still-alive worm was sent to the laboratory of a CSIRO scientist who is very experienced with parasites and the expert was able to tell what it was just by looking at it, Ophidascaris robertsi. This roundworm is typically found in pythons, making this patient the world’s first case of the parasite being found in a human. 

The patient lives near a lake area that is inhabited by carpet pythons, but she actually had no direct snake contact. However, she frequently collects native grasses and warrigal greens from around the lake to eat. The doctors and scientists hypothesized that the patient was probably infected with the parasite after touching the native grasses which were contaminated with snake feces containing parasite eggs, which were transferred to food or kitchen utensils, or after collecting the greens and eating them.

The patient was also treated for other larvae that might have invaded other parts of her body. Care was taken when giving her treatment as some of the medications could trigger inflammation as the larvae died off, and some of the inflammation could be harmful to organs, so other medications were also administered to counteract any possible dangerous side effects. 

The patient is recovering well and is still being monitored regularly as a precaution. The doctors and scientists are exploring whether the patient had a pre-existing condition that may have caused her to be immunocompromised which could have led to the larvae taking hold. This case has been documented in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases

Some cases of zoonotic disease may never be diagnosed if they are rare and physicians aren’t sure what they are looking for. Sometimes people die with the cause never being found. There have been about 30 new infections in the world over the past three decades, of the emerging infections around 75% of them are zoonotic. As people and animals start to live closer together as habits overlap more, this case highlights the dangers of infections and diseases that could pass on between them. In this case, the worm does not transmit between people, but it is possible that it could happen again.

The important takeaway from this cautionary tale is that it is worth taking care when encountering animals and the environment shared between us, especially when it comes to food and water. Make sure that foods are washed thoroughly and that food is cooked properly before you consume them. When you are picking food in areas that animals inhabit it may be a good idea to wear protection like gloves and long sleeves which can help to keep unwanted contaminants off your skin and also provide some protection against bites. 

Just because you may get your food from a grocery store does not mean that you are safe either. Sometimes raw fruits and vegetables can contain harmful germs that can make you sick, like Listeria, E. coli, and Salmonella. Thus it is important that you thoroughly wash raw fruits and vegetables under running water before you eat them, even if you do not plan to eat the peel. 

It is also important to keep raw meats, poultry, and seafood away from your fruits and vegetables. Cross-contamination can happen fairly easily, be wary of this while preparing and storing food. Some foods need to be kept chilled, if you are not sure, look it up. Raw or undercooked poultry and meat can also make you sick, make sure that you are cooking your food adequately.

Perhaps most importantly, wash your hands before and after everything; this also applies to utensils, cutting boards, countertops, and so on. Remembering to properly clean, separate, cook, and chill your food can help protect you and your loved ones from the most unfortunate and unwanted outcomes. 

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