Morgellons (/mɔː(ɹ)ˈdʒɛlənz/) is the informal name of a self-diagnosed skin condition in which individuals have sores that they believe contain some kind of fibers. It is now known to be a form of delusional parasitosis; the sores are the result of compulsive scratching, and the fibers, when analysed, turn out to originate from textiles.
The name was coined in 2002 by Mary Leitao, a mother who rejected the medical diagnosis of her son's delusional parasitosis. She revived it from a letter written by a physician in the mid-1600s. Leitao and others involved in her "Morgellons Research Foundation" successfully lobbied members of the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to investigate the condition in 2006. CDC researchers issued the results of their multi-year study in January 2012, indicating that there were no disease organisms present in people with Morgellons and that the fibers found were likely cotton, and concluded that the condition was "similar to more commonly recognized conditions such as delusional infestation".
Society and culture
Mary Leitao and the MRF
In 2001, according to Mary Leitao, her then two-year-old son developed sores under his lip and began to complain of "bugs". Leitao says she examined the sores with her son's toy microscope and discovered red, blue, black, and white fibers. She states that she took her son to see at least eight different doctors who were unable to find any disease, allergy, or anything unusual about her son's described symptoms. Fred Heldrich, a Johns Hopkins pediatrician with a reputation "for solving mystery cases", examined Leitao's son. Heldrich found nothing abnormal about the boy's skin, wrote to the referring physician that "Leitao would benefit from a psychiatric evaluation and support", and registered his worry about Leitao's "use" of her son. Psychology Today reports that Leitao last consulted an unnamed Johns Hopkins infectious disease specialist who, after reviewing her son's records refused to see him, suggesting Leitao herself might have "Munchausen's by proxy, a psychiatric syndrome in which a parent pretends a child is sick or makes him sick to get attention from the medical system". This opinion of a potential psychological disorder, according to Leitao, was shared by several medical professionals she sought out:
(Leitao) said she long ago grew accustomed to being doubted by doctors whenever she sought help for her son, who is now 7 and still suffering from recurring lesions. "They suggested that maybe I was neurotic", Leitao said. "They said they were not interested in seeing him because I had Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy".
Leitao says that her son developed more sores, and more fibers continued to poke out of them. She and her husband, Edward Leitao, an internist with South Allegheny Internal Medicine in Pennsylvania, felt their son had "something unknown". She chose the name Morgellons disease (with a hard g) from a description of an illness in the medical case-history essay, A Letter to a Friend (c. 1656, pub. 1690) by Sir Thomas Browne, where the physician describes several medical conditions in his experience, including "that endemial distemper of children in Languedoc, called the morgellons, wherein they critically break out with harsh hairs on their backs". There is no suggestion that the symptoms described by Browne are linked to the alleged modern cases.
Leitao started the Morgellons Research Foundation (MRF) informally in 2002 and as an official non-profit in 2004. The MRF states on its website that its purpose is to raise awareness and funding for research into the proposed condition, described by the organization as a "poorly understood illness, which can be disfiguring and disabling". Leitao stated that she initially hoped to receive information from scientists or physicians who might understand the problem, but instead, thousands of others contacted her describing their sores and fibers, as well as neurological symptoms, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and other symptoms. The MRF claims to have received self-identified reports of Morgellons from all 50 U.S. states and 15 other countries, including Canada, the U.K., Australia, and the Netherlands, and states that it has been contacted by over 12,000 families.
In 2012 the Morgellons Research Foundation closed down and directed future inquires to Oklahoma State University.
In May 2006, a CBS news segment on Morgellons aired in Southern California. The same day, the Los Angeles County Department of Health services issued a statement saying, "No credible medical or public health association has verified the existence or diagnosis of 'Morgellons Disease'", and "at this time there is no reason for individuals to panic over unsubstantiated reports of this disease". In June and July 2006 there were segments on CNN, ABC's Good Morning America, and NBC's The Today Show. In August 2006, a segment of the ABC show Medical Mysteries was devoted to the subject. The disease was featured on ABC's Nightline on January 16, 2008, and as the cover story of the January 20, 2008, issue of the Washington Post Magazine.
The first article to propose Morgellons as a new disease in a scientific journal was a review article co-authored by members of the MRF and published in 2006 by the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. A 2006 article in the San Francisco Chronicle reported, "There have been no clinical studies" (of Morgellons disease). A New Scientist article in 2007 also covered the phenomenon, noting that people are reporting similar symptoms in Europe and Australia.
Following a mailing campaign coordinated by the Morgellons Research Foundation, in which self-described sufferers clicked on the foundation Website and sent thousands of form letters to members of Congress, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) task force first met in June 2006. By August 2006, the task force consisted of 12 people, including 2 pathologists, a toxicologist, an ethicist, a mental health expert, and specialists in infectious, parasitic, environmental and chronic diseases.
In June 2007, the CDC opened a website on "Unexplained Dermopathy (aka 'Morgellons')" and by November 2007, the CDC opened an investigation into the condition. Kaiser Permanente in Northern California was chosen to assist with the investigation, which involved skin biopsies from affected people and characterization of foreign material such as fibers or threads obtained from people to determine their potential source. The U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and the American Academy of Dermatology assisted with pathology. In January 2012, the CDC released the results of the study.
Internet and media influence
People usually self-diagnose Morgellons based on information from the Internet and find support and confirmation in online communities of people with similar illness beliefs. In 2006, Waddell and Burke reported the influence of the Internet on people self-diagnosed of Morgellons: "physicians are becoming more and more challenged by the many persons who attempt self-diagnosis on-line. In many cases, these attempts are well-intentioned, yet wrong, and a person's belief in some of these oftentimes unscientific sites online may preclude their trust in the evidence-based approaches and treatment recommendations of their physician." Dermatologist Caroline Koblenzer specifically faults the Morgellons Research Foundation (MRF) website for misleading people: "Clearly, as more and more of our patients discover this site (MRF), there will be an ever greater waste of valuable time and resources on fruitless research into fibers, fluffs, irrelevant bacteria, and innocuous worms and insects." Vila-Rodriguez states that the Internet promotes the spreading and supporting of "bizarre" disease beliefs, because "a belief is not considered delusional if it is accepted by other members of an individual’s culture or subculture".
The LA Times, in an article on Morgellons, notes that "(t)he recent upsurge in symptoms can be traced directly to the Internet, following the naming of the disease by Mary Leitao, a Pennsylvania mother". Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist who has studied the Morgellons phenomenon, states that the "World Wide Web has become the incubator for mass delusion and it (Morgellons) seems to be a socially transmitted disease over the Internet." According to this hypothesis, people with delusions of parasitosis and other psychological disorders become convinced they have "Morgellons" after reading Internet accounts of others with similar symptoms. This is known as mass psychogenic illness, where physical symptoms without an organic cause spread to multiple people within the same community or social group. A 2005 Popular Mechanics article stated that Morgellons symptoms are well-known and characterized in the context of other disorders, and that "widespread reports of the strange fibers date back" only a few years to when the MRF first described them on the Internet.
The Dallas Observer writes that Morgellons may be spread via the Internet and mass media, and "(i)f this is the case, then Morgellons is one in a long line of weird diseases that have swept through populations, only to disappear without a trace once public concern subsides". The article draws parallels to several mass media-spread mass delusions.
In 2008, the Washington Post Magazine reported that Internet discussions about Morgellons include many conspiracy theories about the cause, including biological warfare, nanotechnology, chemtrails and extraterrestrial life. The Atlantic says it "even received pop-culture attention" when it was featured on Criminal Minds, adding that some people have linked Morgellons "to another illness viewed skeptically by most doctors, chronic Lyme disease".
- List of questionable diseases
- Mass psychogenic illness
- Münchausen syndrome
- Quaternary prevention
- Somatoform disorder
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