The causes of a skin disease that has reportedly afflicted many Bay Area residents over the last decade may be more mind than matter, according to a new report by the Center for Disease Control.
The report, published Wednesday, revealed the findings of a two-year study of Northern California sufferers of morgellons, a little-understood affliction characterized by itchy, slow-healing lesions.
Sufferers of the mysterious disease say that the symptoms usually begin with a sensation of itchy, crawling skin, often compared to insects.
Skin rashes and sores follow, along with fibers, threads, cysts or other protrusions emerging from the affected areas.
Symptoms can also include severe fatigue, inability to concentrate, joint pain, vision changes and behavioral problems.
According to the Mayo Clinic, morgellons has been reported in every state in the United States, and in 15 countries worldwide, but most cases are clustered in California, Florida and Texas.
Sufferers even include singer Joni Mitchell and former Oakland A’s relief pitcher Billy Koch, according to media reports.
But after studying the disease, the Center for Disease Control is unconvinced the collection of symptoms is a unified physical ailment, and may be caused by psychological problems.
Dr. Raphael Stricker, a San Francisco physician who treats patients with morgellons, disagreed that the condition is psychological.
“The bottom line of the study is–we don’t know what (morgellons) is,” Stricker said, which has led some to assume that it is a delusional disease.
“It’s definitely not delusional,” Stricker said.
CDC researchers coordinated with Kaiser Permanente to identify patients who may be suffering from morgellons, and found patients who “self-reported emergence of fibers or materials from the skin accompanied by skin lesions and/or disturbing skin sensations.”
They found 115 patients who reported the symptoms between 2006 and 2008, all in 13 Northern California counties and mostly in the Bay Area.
After initial interviews, researchers gave the patients a wide variety of tests, including taking skin, blood and urine samples, taking samples of fibers protruding from the skin when available, and psychological testing.
But the broad range of reported symptoms could not be explained by a single infectious cause, according to the report. Lesions present on those suffering from the disease could be related to irritation from exposure to particular solvents, or even simply caused by rubbing irritated skin.
Furthermore, the fibers, hairs, and other protrusions often appeared to be from cotton, nylon or other fabrics that may have come from clothes sticking to lesions or scabs, based on samples taken from 12 patients in the study.
Researchers said the study represents the first population-based and most comprehensive exploration of the unexplained phenomenon of morgellons, but could draw few conclusions based on the information gathered.
The researchers did recommend that people suffering from morgellons seek treatment for the symptoms experienced as part of the disease, including fatigue, anxiety and depression, and any other physical or psychological afflictions they may be suffering.
Stricker said he and veterinary microbiologist Marianne Middelveen are studying similarities between morgellons and bovine digital dermatitis, or hairy heel warts, a veterinary disease that affects cattle.
According to a report they released in November, the similarities between the two diseases provides evidence that morgellons is an infectious illness.
“The people who say it’s delusional are going to look very, very stupid when the evidence comes out,” he said.
Scott Morris, Bay City News