by Barbara Minton
It sounds like something from a bad sci-fi movie. People report the sensation of creatures crawling under their skin, mysterious moving fibers appear, and finally bugs and worms pop out. Unfortunately, these terrifying symptoms are all too true. The people having them are experiencing Morgellons, the latest and scariest in the series of bizarre diseases appearing in the last few years, seemingly from nowhere. Morgellons is now reaching epidemic proportions in the U.S. and abroad.
Morgellons is a multi-dimensional disease
Morgellons starts with relentless itching, stinging or biting sensations. Cotton-like balls may appear on the body with no reasonable explanation. Soon skin rash develops along with lesions that will not heal. Many sufferers report string-like fibers of varying color popping out through the skin lesions. These fibers can be black, white, red or even iridescent blue. Others report black specks falling from their bodies that litter their sheets and bathrooms. Eventually a variety of bugs and worms begin to find their way out of the body through the lesions. Other accompanying symptoms include hair loss, debilitating and chronic fatigue, hard nodules beneath the skin, and joint pain.
Morgellons also has a cognitive aspect. People with the disease experience neurological damage that manifests as difficulty concentrating, inability to process and use language effectively, and generalized brain fog. The presence of reduced cognitive ability has made it easier for doctors to dismiss Morgellons and send patients away with a diagnosis of delusional parasitosis, meaning they are imagining they are infected by parasites. After the typical eight minute visit, traditional doctors pull out their prescription pads and write these people prescriptions for antidepressants or antipsychotic medications.
As a result, Morgellons also has a psychological component. Once people become aware that symptoms such as theirs are treated as delusions they are reluctant to seek further medical attention and tend to withdraw from society with their only contact with others being through the internet. They begin living the lifestyle of the leper. Many have to give up their jobs and become dependent on public assistance. This adds to the psychological debilitation of the disease. Not being taken seriously when you know you have a terrifying and devastating disease causes permanent psychological damage.
Morgellon’s victims feel the resentment other patients do when they are told it is all in their heads. As Morgellon’s progresses and the neurological symptoms become more manifest, patients can become difficult to care for and deal with. Isolated with only the internet, they become less able to effectively care for themselves. Some Morgellons patients have committed suicide.
It is a sad situation that the traditional doctor’s visit must often end in a diagnosis, but the doctor is unwilling or unable to take the time to make sure it is a correct diagnosis. The traditional medical set up is frequently unable to deal with patients who present with a variety of diverse symptoms affecting several body systems at one time.
Oakland A’s player Billy Koch and his family all have Morgellons. They have been open about their disease and have made some attempt to educate others. Billy had to retire from his baseball career as a result of the disease. Singer Joni Mitchell also has Morgellons, and the disease has negatively impacted her career as well.
Many morgellons victims end up trying to treat themselves
Anyone with Morgellons’s symptoms will probably spend a lot of time going from doctor to doctor. While the unhelpful ones simply tell them they are delusional, the helpful ones prescribe a variety of creams used for scabies, ring worm and other parasitic diseases, but nothing works for more than a few days. With no help from the medical community, people with Morgellons turn to the internet where they learn the name for their disease and the names for the parasites that are coming through their skin. As a result of desperation and the lack of information about the disease except from chat boards, many victims end up trying a variety of toxic treatments at home.
Authorities on the disease are emerging
One of the few people to take the disease seriously was Randy Wymore, a neuroscientist at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Science. He received samples from a range of people who claimed the fibers had come through their skin. Although the samples all resembled one another, to him they looked like no other synthetic or natural fiber with which he compared them. He finally asked the Tulsa police department’s forensics team to examine them.
The team identified the chemical structures of the fibers and compared them to their database of 800 fibers. They found no match, so they used gas chromatography to compare the fibers to their data on 90,000 organic compounds. The fibers did not match up with any of them. They concluded that the fibers were unknown, and not contaminants from clothing sticking to scabs on the lesions as had been thought by those so ready to dismiss what their patients were saying. Wymore and the forensic team concluded that the disease producing these fibers was very real and very frightening.
Wymore then asked the chief of the pediatrics department at Oklahoma State University Hospital, Rhonda Casey, to take a look at some of the patients. At first she was tempted to dismiss them too, but she began to realize how ill the people were. They had neurological symptoms that included confusion, loss of control of their feet that resulted in difficulty walking, and their mouths sagged when they spoke. Many had been diagnosed with neurological diseases.
Dr. Casey examined the patients, took biopsies of their lesions as well as from their healthy skin. Using a dermatoscope, she was able to observe fibers under completely unbroken skin. She found them embedded in the healthy tissue of the patients as well as the diseased tissue, and admitted seeing the full range of fiber colors. She reported seeing a lesion on a young girl’s thigh with black fibers just barely protruding from it, and concluded that she could not have done this to herself.
Another person taking the disease seriously is Trisha Springstead, a registered nurse in Florida who has become a beacon of light for Morgellon’s patients in the area. She has seen the fibers come through their skin, and has spent hours with patients extracting parasites embedded so deeply that a needle is required to extract them. According to her, a dermatoscope does not penetrate deeply enough to reveal the full extent of parasite involvement.
CDC begins epidemiologic investigation into Morgellons
In April, 2006, the CDC recommended an epidemiological investigation of what they were then referring to as a public health concern. In January, 2008 they announced a grant to health care giant Kaiser Permanente to test and interview 150 to 500 patients suffering from Morgellons. The study is being done in the Bay Area of northern California, where many Morgellons patients live. Kaiser Permanente doctors have been among the most ready to classify Morgellons as delusional parasitosis.
The National Center for Zoonotic, Vector-Borne, and Enteric Diseases (ZVED) provided statements posted on the CDC website regarding what the CDC now calls “Unexplained Dermopathy (aka Morgellons”). This organization was created in 2007 under CDC’s Coordinating Center for Infectious Diseases. ZVED promotes itself as proving leadership, expertise, and service in laboratory and epidemiological science, bioterrorism preparedness, applied research, disease surveillance, and outbreak response for infectious diseases.
The term zoonotic refers to any disease that is able to jump the divide from animals to people. Microbes created for bioterrorism are zoonotic. There are many known zoonotic diseases, such as Lyme disease and malaria. Vectors are the transmitters of disease-causing organisms that carry the pathogens from one host to another. By common usage, vectors are considered to be invertebrate animals, usually arthropods. Technically, vertebrates can also act as vectors, including foxes, raccoons, and skunks, which can all transmit disease to humans through a bite. Mosquitoes and ticks are the most notable disease vectors, although mites and gnats may also carry disease. Enteric diseases are bacterial and viral infections of the gastrointestinal tract that account for an under appreciated burden of morbidity and mortality domestically and abroad.
The involvement of ZVED in creating the CDC webpage for Mogellons clearly implies acceptance by the CDC that Morgellons is a disease involving not just fibers but parasites.
ZVED’s vision statement describes three goals: accelerating prevention, control, and preparedness of ecologically mediated microbial threats; global vision, global presence, global reach, and health impact; and working at the intersection of human, animal, and ecological health to achieve healthier people, places, and a healthier world.
The Morgellons, GMO link persists
About the time that Dr. Wymore’s forensic investigation of fibers was completed, a specialist in infectious disease detection, Ahmed Kilani, claimed to have broken down two fiber samples and extracted their DNA. He found that they belonged to a fungus.
Meanwhile, Vitaly Citovsky, Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University in New York, discovered the fibers contained the substance Agrobacterium Tumafaciens, the bacteria causing crown gall disease in plants (formation of tumors in more than 140 species of dicot plants). It is a genus of gram-negative bacteria capable of genetically transforming not only plants, but also other eukaryotic species, including humans.
Anonymous samples were provided to Professor Citovsky by the Morgellon’s Research Foundation to use in investigating the potential presence of Agrobacterium Tumafaciens in biopsies from Morgellon’s patients. Control reactions included samples provided by healthy donors. Only Morgellons, not healthy subjects, tested positive for the bacterium in these studies.
Professor Citovsky issued a statement saying his observation does not imply that Agrobacterium Tumafaciens causes Morgellons, or that Morgellons is indeed an infectious disease. However, he has called for further study to determine (1) statistical significance of data, (2) whether the bacterium is not only present extracellularly, but also causes genetic transformation of the infected tissues, and (3) whether infection of laboratory animals with the bacterium can recreate symptoms of Morgellons.
Agrobacteerium Tumafaciens is a soil bacterium. Symptoms of grown gall disease are caused by the insertion of a small segment of DNA into the plant cell, which is incorporated at a semi-random location into the plant genome. They are parasitic and detrimental to the plant.
DNA transmission capabilities of Agrobacterium have been extensively exploited by biotechnologists as a means for inserting foreign genes into plants. They discovered the gene transfer mechanism between Agrobacterium and plants, and developed methods to alter Agrobacterium into an efficient delivery system for gene engineering in plants. This is done by cloning the desired gene sequence into the transfer DNA (T-DNA) that will be inserted into the host DNA. Under laboratory conditions the T-DNA has also been transferred to human cells, demonstrating the diversity of insertion application. The mechanism through which Agrobacterium inserts materials into the host cell is very similar to mechanisms used by pathogens to insert materials (usually proteins) into human cells.