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?

Stopping dengue with mosquito parasites

Paul Raven @ 09-10-2010

A while back we had a brief look at the possibility of simply excising mosquitoes from the ecosystems in which they are most problematic, but now an Australian scientist is trying a different tack in order to curtail the spreading range of the dengue fever virus: mosquitoes infected with a particular bacterium are less able to host the dengue virus and live only half as long, so introducing them into dengue zones should see them rapidly out-compete the dengue carriers. Sounds a lot less drastic than trying for wholesale eradication of a species…

Technothriller threat of the week: insect-borne bioterrorism!

Paul Raven @ 18-05-2010

Via Bruce Schneier, still tirelessly cataloguing the monetization and manipulation of movie-plot threats: a workshop to “address the threat of insect-based terrorism”.

How real is the threat? Many of the world’s most dangerous pathogens already are transmitted by arthropods, the animal phylum that includes mosquitoes. But so far the United States has not been exposed to a large-scale spread of vector-borne diseases like Rift Valley, chikungunya fever or Japanese encephalitis. But terrorists with a cursory knowledge of science could potentially release insects carrying these diseases in a state with a tropical climate like Florida’s, according to several experts who will speak at the workshop.

I’m no expert, and I’ll gladly cede the floor to someone who can really run the numbers on this sort of thing, but it strikes me that the effort involved in kicking off a terror plot involving the use of insects to spread killer diseases (not to mention the number of failure points and spill-overs involved in using the natural world as your attack vector) makes this a complete non-starter.

Lovely pulp-era plot hook, though…

Karl Schroeder deflates further Mars FUD

Paul Raven @ 02-11-2009

After dismantling the suggestion that a Mars mission is too inherently dangerous for humans to undertake, Karl Schroeder has a new targetScience Daily announces a paper that claims that we can’t go to Mars because the spacecraft will fill up with nasty bacteria and make everyone sick [via SlashDot]:

Frippiat and colleagues based their conclusions on studies showing that immune systems of both people and animals in space flight conditions are significantly weaker than their grounded counterparts. They also reviewed studies that examined the effects of space flight conditions and altered gravity on virulence and growth of common pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli and Staphylococcus. These studies show that these bacteria reproduce more rapidly in space flight conditions, leading to increased risk of contamination, colonization and serious infection.

The basic facts there are quite true, but they’re being deployed alongside some invidious assumptions, as Schroeder points out:

This doesn’t mean that space flight is intrinsically dangerous.  It means that badly shielded tin-can environments that aren’t spun for gravity are a bad idea.  And that is quite a different conclusion.

Prolonged exposure to zero gravity weakens the immune system, so don’t expose astronauts to prolonged zero gravity.  Invest in some research into how to spin the spacecraft.  Then spin the spacecraft.

Secondly, shield the damn things.  The only reason why radiation is considered an issue is because it’s expensive to transport heavy shielding into orbit. One solution would be to use lunar water; simply put bags of the stuff around the ship.  That makes it heavier and hence requires more fuel… but now the problem can be seen for what it is, a simple problem of launch costs.

Spaceflight is not bad for our health.  Cut-rate spaceflight that avoids the obvious solutions is.

Those obvious solutions are, of course, a function of the launch cost issue – there’s a solution for pretty much everything if you can just get the necessary hardware up into orbit, but that’s not an option while we’re constrained by the limitations of rocketry.

I suspect that we’ll get there eventually, provided we survive our short- to medium-term future. After all, sailing ships were almost impossible to keep disease-free at first, until some smart minds got focussed on fixing the problems – and the motives for those fixes were profit and colonial expansion, which are likely to be exactly the same factors that propel us out of the gravity well. Perhaps the commercial space operators will break out of the rocketry box, given the chance.

A spoonful of friendly bacteria helps the medicine go down

Tom James @ 21-08-2009

pillsGenetically engineered bacteria have been used to deliver therapies for bowel disorders like inflammatory bowel disease:

The bacterium is able to deliver the protein, a human growth factor called KGF-2, directly to the damaged cells that line the gut, unlike other treatments which can cause unwanted side effects. Also unlike other treatments, it is envisaged that patients will be able to control the medication themselves by ingesting xylan, perhaps in the form of a drink.

I am not 1 of the 400 Britons who suffers from IBD but it is wonderful to see that genetic engineering has such excellent medical applications.

[from Science Daily][image from Deco Fernandez on flickr]

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