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

A furious woman with a big scar on her jaw says, “I have Erin Brockovich’s lawyer’s number in my purse. Don’t you think I’m not going to use it.”

“But who are you going to sue?” asks a frail, elderly lady two tables away.

The morgellons believers look expectantly at the indignant litigant. “I don’t know,” she says.

In a far corner, a woman with a round plaster covering a dry, pinkly scrubbed cheek weeps.

I retire to the lobby to await my allotted chat with Savely. I become aware of a commotion at reception. One of the attendees is complaining loudly: “It’s disgusting! Bugs! In the bed. I’ve already been in two rooms ... ”

When she’s gone, I ask the receptionist if, over the weekend, there has been a surge in complaints about cleanliness. “Oh yeah.” She leans forward and whispers conspiratorially. “I think it’s part of their condition.”

Yet, when we speak, Savely is resolute. “These people are not crazy,” she insists. “They’re good, solid people who have been dealt a bad lot.”

A woman approaches the vending machine behind Savely. Between her hand and the handle of her walking stick is a layer of tissue paper.

There is an element of craziness, I suggest.

“OK, there is,” she says, “but it’s understandable. For people to say you’re delusional is very anxiety-provoking. Then they get depressed. Who wouldn’t? The next stage is usually an obsessive-compulsive thing — paying attention to the body in great detail. But, again, I feel this is understandable, in the circumstances.”

I slip back into the conference room, where Margot is using her US$1,145 Wi-Fi iPad telescope to examine herself. I have an idea.

“Can I have a go?”

Pushing the lens into my palm, I immediately see a fiber. The group around me falls into a hush. “Did you clean your hand?” Margot asks. She fetches an antibacterial wet-wipe. I scrub and try again. I find an even bigger fiber. I wipe for a second time. And find another one. Margot looks up at me with wet, sorry eyes. “Are you worried?” She puts a comforting hand on my arm. “Oh, don’t be worried, Will. I’m sure you haven’t got it.”

Back in London, I find a 2008 paper on morgellons in the journal Dermatologic Therapy that describes patients picking “at their skin continuously in order to ‘extract’ an organism”; “obsessive cleaning rituals, showering often” and individuals going “to many physicians, such as infectious disease specialists and dermatologists” — all behaviors “consistent with DOP.” (For treatment, the authors recommend prescribing a benign antiparasitic ointment to build trust, and supplementing it with an antipsychotic.) After finding “fibers” on my own hand, I’m fairly satisfied morgellons is some 21st-century genre of OCD spread through the Internet and the fibers are — as Wymore’s labs report — particles of everyday, miscellaneous stuff: cotton, human hair, rat hair and so on.

There is one element of the condition that’s been niggling, though. Both Paul and Greg’s morgellons began with an explosion of itching. Now it’s affecting me: the night after my meeting with Paul, I couldn’t sleep for itching. I had two showers before bed and another in the morning. All through the convention, I am tormented; driven to senseless scratching. Why is itch so infectious?

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