Morgellons: mystery illness or memetic hysteria?

Paul Raven @ 09-05-2011

Fascinating article over at The Guardian about morgellons, which – depending on who you ask – are either an as-yet unrecognised parasitic disease that causes unidentifiable fibers to grow through human skin, or a delusional condition whose symptoms are passed around from sufferer to sufferer in much the same way as the latest lulzy meme on the intertubes.

Morgellons was named in 2001 by an American called Mary Leitao, whose son complained of sores around his mouth and the sensation of “bugs”. Examining him with a toy microscope, Leitao found him to be covered in unexplained red, blue, black and white fibres. Since then, workers at her Morgellons Research Foundation say they have been contacted by more than 12,000 affected families. Campaign group the Charles E Holman Foundation states there are sufferers in “every continent except Antarctica”. Thousands have written to Congress demanding action. In response, more than 40 senators, including Hillary Clinton, John McCain and a pre-presidential Barack Obama, pressured the Centres For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) to investigate; in 2006, it formed a special taskforce, setting aside $1m to study the condition. Sufferers include folk singer Joni Mitchell, who has complained of “this weird incurable disease that seems like it’s from outer space… Fibres in a variety of colours protrude out of my skin: they cannot be forensically identified as animal, vegetable or mineral. Morgellons is a slow, unpredictable killer – a terrorist disease. It will blow up one of your organs, leaving you in bed for a year.”

So it’s new, frightening and profoundly odd. But if you were to seek the view of the medical establishment, you’d find the strangest fact about this disease: morgellons doesn’t exist.

Based on the article and my (admittedly limited and mostly second- and third-hand) experience with delusional and paranoid conditions, I’m putting my money on morgellons being a Western technologised equivalent to the witchdoctor penis-theft scares that you hear about sometimes. The caveat here, of course, is that I Am Not A Doctor, Nor Do I Play One On Television, and that the writer of the piece might have cherrypicked the quotes that made the cut, but even so, the casual similarities in language between morgellons sufferers and, say, alien abductees or conspiracy theorists is hard to escape:

Threads of conversation rise from the hubbub: “I mix Vaseline with sulphur and cover my entire body”; “The more you try to prove you’re not crazy, the more crazy they think you are”; “The whole medical community is part of this. I wouldn’t say it’s a conspiracy but…”

Many of the attendees have been diagnosed with DOP [Delusions of Parasitosis], a subject that enrages one of the first speakers – Dr Greg Smith, a paediatrician of 28 years’ experience. “Excuse me, people!” he says. “This is morally and ethically wrong! So let me make a political statement, boys and girls.” He pulls off his jumper, to reveal a T-shirt reading, “DOP” with a red line through it. “No more!” he shouts above wild applause. “No more!”

Later, Smith tells me he’s been a sufferer since 2004. “I put a sweatshirt I’d been wearing in the garden over my arm and there was this intense burning, sticking sensation. I thought it was cactus spines. I began picking to get them out, but it wasn’t long before it was all over my body.” He describes “almost an obsession. You just can’t stop picking. You feel the sensation of something that’s trying to come out of your skin. You’ve just got to get in there. And there’s this sense of incredible release when you get something out.”

[…]

The next day, nursing practitioner Dr Ginger Savely, who claims to have treated more than 500 morgellons patients, leads an informal discussion in the conference room. Around large circular tables sit the dismissed and the angry. “I’ve seen a fibre go into my glasses,” says one. “I’ve seen one burrow into a pad,” adds another. “One of my doctors thinks it’s nanotechnology”; “I was attacked by a swarm of some type of tiny wasps that seemed to inject parts of their bodies under my skin”; “They have bugs on public transport. Never put your suitcase on the floor of a train.”

OCD, paranoia, compulsive cleanliness… morgellons clearly exists, but whether it exists anywhere other than the minds of its victims is a question for folk more qualified than myself. (Also, the quote about a doctor “thinking it’s nanotechnology” suggests either quackery or, at best, pandering. The cynic in me suspects a lot of these poor people have been strung along by consultants of dubious ethical integrity; that particular social disease is as old as medicine itself, if not older..)

Even assuming that morgellons is a delusional condition whose symptoms are passed on in a memetic fashion, though, an interesting question arises: could this phenomenon be weaponised somehow? Why use a real biological weapon, with its potential to harm your own people as easily and indiscriminately as your enemies, when simply deluding an entire city or nation-state into thinking they have some debilitating syndrome would do the same job? If you did so, would the more paranoid of your own troops – believing it possible that the disease isn’t fake at all and that they’re being duped as well – acquire the symptoms sympathetically? And if a condition can be passed from person to person in such a way, even if there’s no demonstrable medical cause or trigger for it, is it any different to a “real” disease after all? Perhaps the software of the human platform has finally got sufficiently sophisticated and networked to evolve its own code-only viruses…

… unless they were coded up by whatever the human-hardware equivalent of a bot-net operator is. Which sounds pretty far fetched, of course. But maybe that’s just what They want you to think? 😉

Footnote: I wonder if the above article will provoke a sudden spike in new sufferers coming forward?

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5 Responses to “Morgellons: mystery illness or memetic hysteria?”

  1. Cat Vincent says:

    ” I wonder if the above article will provoke a sudden spike in new sufferers”. Heh.

    Here’s a thought… what if Morgellons is a kind of Tulpa? Memetically transferrable condition with physically manifesting effects… a Stand-Alone Infection.

  2. Sterling Camden says:

    I suppose one additional feature of this disease is that it eludes isolation and documentation?

  3. Michael Roberts says:

    Gah! Now I’m imagining myself imagining myself itching! It’s meta-agonizing!

  4. Kat Jean Smith says:

    Dear Paul Raven

    Let me tell you something about Morgellons. This is a severe illness that over 16,000 in the U.S, and that is the number that people have registered, not counting the others that have not registered. It is allover the world, and growing rapidly. The United Kingdom has a web site within their Infectious Disease Dept. and most of the countries have sites also. We are the only country that is not doing anything about it. Probably because we are the creator of this nasty disease. I have a daughter and grandson 10 years old, who has this. This is the most devastating thing I have seen. She is a single mother trying to raise a son who is autistic. She spends all her money and time trying to find a doctor who can help her. The lesions are terrible and they don’t go away for weeks, and they leave terrible scars. The constant anxiety of itching and scratching, because you feel things crawling under your skin, is enough to commit suicide, and if you read any other blogs about morgellons, you might see that people have committed suicide over this. It robs you of all your money, because of trying different treatments, because the doctors do not know anything about it and aren’t interested in listening to you. She has been to 5 different dermatologists and doctors, and infectious disease doctors for her and her son. She has spent thousands on treatments on the internet saying they have a cure, when they don’t. She cleans every day from top to bottom. She washes clothes everyday in bleach and ammonia. She has thrown away 20 to 30 bags of clothes and rugs and furnishings. She is spending lots of money now on a sulphur treatment to try to help her and her son. So don’t put down people with Morgellons, when you don’t know anything about it. I suggest you look for yourself at the UK.Morgellons, and other sites that are knowlegeable on this, such as Morgellonsfocus.com. The University of Okalahoma is doing research Morgellons, and are doing it with their own monies. I strongly suggest you look at that site. Other Universities are doing research on their own to find a cure to help these people, because the U.S. Center for Disease, has done NOTHING. This is not a joke, it is either affecting people by clothing shipped in from other countries, or it is in our vegetables or meat we ingest. Noone knows where it comes from and how they get it. So I suggest you be extra cautious, because you may get it, and be in the same situation as thousands of other people. I don’t wish this upon noone. But I think you owe these SUFFERERS a big apology for this terrible illness that they got somehow and are living in misery everyday. Educate yourself on morgellon, before you go making conclusions about it.

    Jean_kat

  5. Paul Raven says:

    Jean_kat, I’m sorry if you felt I was belittling Morgellons sufferers; as my piece says, they’re clearly suffering from *something*, and as I’m not a medical practitioner or psychologist my speculations are just that. But your own references to expensive treatments that don’t work suggests to me that the real damage being done is being done by internet hucksters offering you a cure they don’t have for a syndrome that no one understands. And if I washed my clothes daily with ammonia and bleach, I’d expect to get a dermatological reaction as well; it might be that the attempts to cure or prevent are actually exacerbating the problem.

    I hope the university studies shed some light on the problem, and I’d suggest that the best thing Morgellons suffers can do is to start a dialogue with those university projects in order to get to the truth. Because whatever the cause of the disease may be, website communities full of discredited conspiracy theories and fringe therapists with pricey cures to peddle aren’t going to make the medical mainstream take the problem more seriously; quite the opposite, in fact.