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?