In the wake of a world-first parasite discovery in Australia, people’s interest in the little passengers has piqued. But the risk of acquiring a parasite isn’t as high as you think.
Regardless of whether you religiously scroll the top stories every morning on the bus, or instead spend that time immersed in your favourite playlist, there’s no doubt you’ve seen the latest parasite discovery.
In a world-first this week, a neurosurgeon stumbled upon an 8cm live worm inside a woman‘s brain, and the discovery has enlivened Australia’s reputation as home to the world’s worst creepy crawlies. And while it seems this infamous parasite has rooted itself firmly in the world’s news cycle for the foreseeable future, there’s really no need for mass hysteria.
Dr Tom Snelling, professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, breaks down exactly which parasites are worth taking up metaphorical space in our brains.
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Above all, the infectious diseases physician warns against unnecessary stress, saying despite recent headlines, critically serious parasite infections are incredibly rare in Australia.
Even so, Dr Snelling says there’s plenty of common parasites that you’re bound to come across at some point in your lifetime, so it’s worth being aware of their impact.
Common parasites in Australia
“There are a number of parasites that commonly infect people, but they only rarely cause serious infection,” he says, of well known parasites such pinworms, head lice and scabies, each infamous for causing itching in the anus, on the scalp, and on the skin respectively.
In remote and tropical parts of Australia, we occasionally see other types of worm infections of the bowel, but these only occasionally cause serious problems.
“One worm, Strongyloides, may become a problem in people with very suppressed immune systems because of therapy for cancer or organ transplantation,” explains Dr Snelling. “Likewise, giardia and cryptosporidium are parasites that can occasionally cause severe diarrhoea, especially in people with weakened immune systems.”
Like immuno-suppressed people, pregnant women can also face a greater risk of more severe symptoms, with a particular parasite infection, toxoplasma, causing serious harm to the developing foetus.
“Serious parasite infections occur more frequently in other parts of the world, and we sometimes see serious infections in people returning from overseas,” says Dr Snelling, explaining worm infections seen in other countries can be a common cause of anaemia and severe fatigue.
What can we do to avoid becoming a parasite’s new host?
According to Dr Snelling, parasites can be acquired from other people, form the environment, or by eating contaminated food. In the case of the headlining Australian brain parasite, the woman became an unsuspecting host after foraging, cooking and eating native greens containing traces of contaminated carpet Python droppings.
“The best way to avoid infection is by washing hands with soap before eating, and thoroughly washing raw foods, including leafy vegetables.” Dr Snelling says.
Aside from practising good food hygiene, the infectious diseases expert encourages us to be wary of animals, even our beloved cavoodles.
“Animals can carry parasites and potentially harmful bacteria, so it is important to make sure you and your children wash your hands with soap after handling animals or their poo,” he says. “This includes things like snails and slugs.”
So are all parasites evil, hellbent on sucking us dry of our health and vitality? The answer isn’t quite as simple as you’d expect.
“It’s possible that some parasites might have a positive effect on the immune system,” Dr Snelling says. “ It’s theorised that the human immune system has evolved to handle parasitic infection to a certain extent, and that some exposure might reduce the risk, or even improve certain allergic and immune-related conditions.”
Now, in what seems to be a modern-day nod to mediaeval leech therapies, researchers have started investigating whether certain parasites could one day be used as a therapeutic strategy.
But as Dr Snelling reiterates, these investigations are still in their early stages, and to date no medical or scientific expert is encouraging people to deliberately expose themselves to parasites– unless of course it’s the Oscar winning Korean thriller.