Sun, May 08, 2011 - Page 13 News List

The mystery of the morgellons itch

It’s a mysterious condition that affects tens of thousands worldwide. But are we dealing with a hidden epidemic or mass hysteria?

By Will Storr  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Paul is not convinced by this diagnosis. He carries an alcohol hand gel everywhere he goes, has four showers a day and steam-cleans his clothes. The stress leaves him exhausted, short-tempered. He has difficulty concentrating or applying himself at work. His lowest points have been “pretty much feeling like ending it. Thinking, could I go through with it? Probably. It’s associated with the times the medical profession have dismissed me. It’s just ... I can’t see myself living for ever with this.”

Has he mentioned these thoughts to his doctor?

“No, because talking about things like that adds a mental angle — supports the prognosis of DOP. And it’s absolutely a physical condition. I mean, look!”

The evidence on his computer does appear convincing. Much thinner than his body hair, the fibers seem to be protruding from his sores. But what are they? And how did they get there? To find out, I’m heading to the 4th Annual Morgellons Conference in Austin, Texas, to meet a molecular biologist who doesn’t believe the medical consensus. Rather, he argues, the forensic tests he’s commissioned on the fibers point to something altogether more unworldly.

In spring 2005, Randy Wymore, associate professor of pharmacology at Oklahoma State University, stumbled across an article about morgellons. Reading about the fibers sufferers believed were the byproduct of some weird parasite, but which were dismissed by dermatologists as humdrum environmental detritus, he thought, “But this should be easy to figure out.” He sent an e-mail to sufferers, requesting samples, then compared them with samples of cotton, nylon, carpets and curtains. Examining them under the microscope, he got a shock. The sufferers’ fibers looked utterly different.

Wymore arranged for fiber analysis at the Tulsa police department’s forensic laboratory. Moments into his tests, a detective with 28 years’ experience of this sort of work murmured, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this.” The morgellons particles didn’t match any of the 800 fibers on their database, nor the 85,000 known organic compounds. He heated one fiber to 600°C and was astonished to find it didn’t burn. By the day’s end, Wymore concluded, “There’s something real going on here. Something we don’t understand at all.”

Last year, he approached several commercial laboratories to run further tests, but the moment they discovered the job was related to morgellons, firm after firm backed out. Finally, Wymore found a lab prepared to take the work. It is these results that will be revealed during the course of the two-day conference.

An hour south of Austin, in the lobby of the Westoak Woods Baptist Church convention center, morgellons sufferers from the US, UK, Spain, Germany and Mexico gather by the breakfast buffet. 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 ... ”

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