The Plague

Bizarre fibers. Black sweat. Bugs under the skin. Welcome to the controversial world of Morgellons disease.

On March 24, he makes what sounds like a final entry in his online journal. "Still alive, sort of," he writes. "Here's a chapter from my novel I'm writing: Goodbye Blue Sky."

He begins with a Smiths song. "Don't try to wake me in the morning, because I will be gone/Don't feel bad for me, I want you to know/Deep within the cell of my heart I will feel so glad to go/There is another world, there is a better world."

Sometimes, it seems suicide is the only escape.

Dr. Randy Wymore, an assistant professor of pharmacology and physiology at Oklahoma State University, says he has no doubt Morgellons is real.
Dr. Randy Wymore, an assistant professor of pharmacology and physiology at Oklahoma State University, says he has no doubt Morgellons is real.

No one disputes the link between mental illness and Morgellons. The question is which comes first. Morgellons sufferers, or Morgies, insist that the horrific symptoms of the disease bring on delusions and obsessive-compulsive behavior. Detractors say it's the other way around.

One of the most popular Web sites on the disease is Morgellons Watch, a blog dedicated to poking holes in every known theory on the disease. The blog operator would only agree to an interview via e-mail and would only identify himself as Michael from Los Angeles. Leitao, the director of the Morgellons Research Foundation, suspects that Michael is a dermatologist. Michael describes his interest in Morgellons as a hobby, nothing more.

"I hate seeing people misled. I'm a skeptic, and this just seemed something that would benefit from investigation," he says. "...I keep anonymous to avoid making enemies."

One of Michael's theories is that Morgellons is a mass psychogenic illness. Other sites popular among skeptics, such as Mind Hacks, have suggested the same thing.

A mass psychogenic illness is an illness in which real physical symptoms are created by the mind. Earlier this year in Portugal, for example, large numbers of schoolchildren came down with symptoms that mirrored those suffered by characters in a popular teenage soap opera. The outbreak came just days after an episode aired about a life-threatening virus descending on a school.

Then there's Koro, or penis panic, in which a man believes his penis is shrinking into his body. Some men with Koro have gone as far as attaching fish hooks to their foreskin. In 1967, a Koro outbreak in Singapore subsided only after a massive propaganda campaign in which health officials assured the public it was anatomically impossible for the penis to retract into the body. The government also ordered the media to stop airing stories on reported cases.

As recently as 2003, a similar epidemic swept through the capital of Sudan, where hundreds of men became convinced their penises would melt if they came into contact with Zionists trying to wipe them out. Word of the disease spread through the media and text messaging. One local columnist advised readers to avoid "a dark-skinned man" who was spreading the disease. Others thought the disease was passed through verbal curses or an electronic "robot" comb.

Similar mass outbreaks have occurred in the United States. In the summer of 2002, the New York Times Magazine ran a story about a mysterious skin rash that appeared at more than two dozen elementary and middle schools across the country in the months after September 11. The rash would typically disappear the moment the kids got home from school.

But there were also other questions. Why did more girls than boys catch it? Why weren't parents and siblings catching it? And above all, what was causing it? Health officials ran blood tests that were inconclusive. Environmental investigators couldn't find asbestos or chemical spills or anything else that would cause the rash.

The Times story, titled "Hysteria Hysteria," speculated that the outbreak may have had something to do with the anthrax paranoia after September 11. Rumors spread that the rashes were caused by a terrorist attack cover-up or through donated books on Islam. Others traced the outbreak back to chemtrails from airplanes, a theory that would later be used to explain Morgellons.

One of the experts quoted in the story was Tim Jones, an epidemiologist from the Tennessee Department of Health who studied a similar rash outbreak there. In that case, Jones concluded that the rashes were an example of mass psychogenic illness, a condition that could affect anyone, regardless of age or education. Sick Building Syndrome, for example, is surprisingly common, Jones says. The illness is spread through the power of suggestion. Someone at work smells something and wonders if natural gas is leaking. Word spreads, and before long, everyone in the office feels sick.

"It's a very hard thing to explain to people because their symptoms aren't fake," Jones says. "Their symptoms are real. They are fainting, vomiting, hyperventilating, their heart rate is beating fast. They're not faking that stuff. They're real symptoms. The issue is, what's the genesis of the symptoms?"

Jones doesn't think Morgellons is a mass psychogenic illness, however, because there's no such thing as a Morgellons outbreak. "You know, 50 people don't go to work and get hit with Morgellons," he says. Instead, the disease hits one person at a time. But there may be a similarity between the two in how hysteria--fueled by message boards, Web sites and the media--causes the diseases to spread. Many Morgellons sufferers say they never knew they had the disease until they saw it on television. A San Antonio television reporter who did a story on Morgellons in May had trouble finding interview subjects for her first piece on the subject. But after the segment aired, she was swamped with calls from people who thought they had the disease. Finding people to interview for a follow-up story was no problem at all.

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