In the pantheon of human diseases, there are more than a few strange disorders that we’re unfortunately susceptible to as a species. Morgellons disease, however, must fall near the top. Many people have never heard of this bizarre condition, which currently stands at the fringes of contemporary medicine; however, it’s becoming more and more visible thanks to intense research on behalf of grassroots organizations like the Charles E. Holman Foundation, whose objective is to find a cause and ultimately treatment for this disturbing disorder. Morgellons disease isn’t a life-threatening illness, but the symptoms can be so persistent and debilitating that many patients find themselves utterly crippled by it. This suffering is compounded by the fact that many doctors don’t believe that Morgellons is a real condition, and will often try to convince their patients that they’re suffering from some kind of delusional disorder. So what exactly is this strange disorder that seems to half-exist, and what are the symptoms?
Although there are Morgellons patients all over the world, the disease originated in the U.S.A. – or at least, it was discovered there. It’s hard to tell exactly when Morgellons disease first came into being, but it was certainly christened in America. In 2001, the two-year-old son of Mary Leitao started complaining to his mother about “bugs”. Not knowing exactly what he meant by this, Leitao took a closer look at her son, and discovered a number of open lesions on his body. Although she didn’t know it at the time, these two symptoms would become two of three cornerstone symptoms for Morgellons, recognized by patients across the globe. Concerned about the sores and constant itching, Leitao took her son to see several doctors, each of whom could find nothing wrong with the child. Eventually, they started focusing on Leitao herself, who was subsequently accused of suffering from Munchausen’s by proxy, a psychiatric disorder where a parent will overexaggerate or even completely invent symptoms in their child for the sake of attention.
Unperturbed, Leitao took to the internet, where she set up a website dedicated to the disease. She christened it Morgellons after a passage she found in an ancient medical journal, which described children growing hairs on their back, and soon had numerous people contacting her, describing the same symptoms. In fact, the strangest symptom of all, and the one that definitively defines Morgellons disease, is also the most disturbing. Along with the itching sensations and the lesions, patients consistently have thread-like fibers growing out of the sores, usually colored blue, black, white, or red. These filaments can lie under the skin as well as protruding out from it. It’s unknown exactly what these fibers are made from; skeptical doctors have written them off as being clothes fibers, obsessed over by patients who are in the throes of delusion, but there is enough evidence out there that suggests this simply isn’t the case.
The disease has enough coverage in the wake of Leitao’s discovery to be taken seriously by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC for short). They conducted a study into 115 cases and presented their results in 2012. Unfortunately for Morgellons sufferers, their findings were not positive – they concluded that Morgellons disease had no underlying cause, and that the symptoms were manifestations of one main delusional symptom, most likely delusional parasitosis, a psychiatric condition where patients believe there are bugs crawling around under their skin. They did not completely rule out the possibility of Morgellons being a new disease, but confirmed that they could find no one unifying cause for the symptoms. They also couldn’t find any answers for the fiber samples that they collected from patients, but concluded they were largely cotton fibers from clothing.
The results were a blow to Morgellons sufferers around the world, and were clearly unsatisfactory for many. The outcome was contested in many circles and the disease continues to be highly controversial in many circles. However, as more and more patients come to light, there is little doubt that this is something more than a worldwide mass hysteria. Doctors’ attitudes towards Morgellons disease in 2018 typically fall into one of three categories: they believe their patient is delusional and suffering from a psychiatric disorder; they believe Morgellons is a legitimate condition that needs to be certified; or they are undecided when presented with the symptoms and reserve judgment until more is discovered about it.
And so the quest for both an origin and a cure continue. Recent research has suggested that Morgellons may be a specific co-infection of chronic Lyme. Patients with Morgellons disease have also uniformly been found to have chronic Lyme, and so it may be a bizarre development of the Lyme-causing bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi. Why some Lyme sufferers have it and some don’t is something of a mystery, as is the case with many elements of Lyme; however, what’s clear is that patients and advocates won’t be satisfied until they have all the answers to the mysterious illness that is Morgellons.