- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2008

The description alone is disquieting: Victims have bulbous pimples glutted with dark fibers, they feel crawling sensations under their skin, they’re fatigued, confused, depressed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially call it the “unexplained illness.” Yesterday, the federal agency announced it would formally investigate the condition — known as Morgellons syndrome — and is bringing in the military to help it do it.

The cause and risk factors are unknown, though most of the cases are showing up in California, Florida and Texas, said Dr. Michele Pearson, CDC’s principal investigator. The agency is spending $545,000 and enlisting the help of the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology as well as the American Academy of Dermatology to conduct “immediate” and “rigorous” research.

“There is no textbook definition on this condition. There are many hypotheses about what might be causing and contributing to it. So it’s a frustrating journey, not only for patients but for providers who care for them,” Dr. Pearson said yesterday.

“Clearly, the suffering these patients are experiencing is real,” she added.

Public awareness of the condition has been intensifying.

Morgellons was first identified in 2002 by Mary M. Leitao, a biologist whose toddler displayed the spectrum of disgusting symptoms. She established the New York-based Morgellons Research Foundation (MRF) after failing to find what she considered appropriate care for her 2-year-old son. The advocacy group has since registered more than 11,000 people who say they have the condition or have been mistreated by the medical community.

Some doctors have dismissed Morgellons as dermatitis, hives, scabies or “delusional parasitosis,” in which patients are obsessed with the idea that their bodies have been invaded by parasites — prompting them to seek unconventional cures. Some desperate victims have swallowed veterinary de-worming medicines or rubbed bleach on affected skin.

Limited research has revealed a potential link between Morgellons and the same bacteria that causes Lyme disease, according to the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. To date, treatments have included antipsychotic drugs, antibiotics, antifungals, herbal supplements and light therapy. Morgellons cases have appeared in Canada, Australia and several European countries, though the CDC has not established that the syndrome is common in “underdeveloped countries.”

The MRF, meanwhile, has long urged self-identified victims to write to public officials and contact the press.

The strategy has worked. Global interest spiked in 2006 after a series of alarming prime-time reports appeared on CNN, NBC and particularly ABC — where Morgellons was showcased on “Medical Mysteries,” with full color close-ups of ravaged skin and the victims’ personal accounts. In spring 2006, the CDC acknowledged “the volume of concern” about the syndrome and last summer established an online contact for fearful victims.

The agency has since received about 1,200 inquiries, and is intent on providing “meaningful answers,” said Dr. Pearson.

Over the next year, the CDC will track Morgellons patients in California who have reported symptoms in the past 18 months, using Kaiser Permanente facilities in Oakland.

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