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Researchers Work to Unravel Skin Medical Mystery

Posted: September 23, 2008

Deanna Odom was either delusional or she was suffering from a bizarre and devastating illness that doctors cannot treat. In December 2004 the 36-year-old mother of two teenagers started developing lesions on her arms, legs and backside. At times, she says, it felt as if needles were stinging her. And then she noticed strange, colored fibers emerging from her skin. "They would almost look like dust fibers," says Odom, who lives in Torrance, CA. "I would put my hands together and my hands would puff off the fibers. Combing my head, you could see the fibers emerging. It's literally almost out of a sci-fi movie. You think, 'This isn't happening'."

After seeing a TV news report in February 2005, Odom became convinced she was suffering from Morgellons, an unexplained condition that has sparked debate and controversy within the medical community. Some doctors and researchers believe Morgellons is an emergent disease characterized by nonhealing skin lesions, crawling or itching sensations, fibers and black granules emerging from the skin, and neurological impairments such as short-term memory loss. The problem, for Odom and thousands of others who believe they suffer from the disease, is that most dermatologists think there is no such thing as Morgellons. They attribute the suffering of patients like Odom to delusions or anxiety-driven self-mutilation.

Now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have launched their first study of Morgellons, which may provide some answers as early as next year. Michele Pearson, the CDC's principal investigator, says the agency got involved after receiving an increasing number of calls—averaging about 100 a month since November 2006—from patients, doctors, public health officials and members of Congress asking the CDC to look into Morgellons, which the agency describes as "an unexplained skin condition."

Patients in the study will undergo medical, dermatological and psychological examinations, including blood tests and skin biopsies. The study will be conducted in conjunction with Kaiser Permanente's Northern California Division of Research. Any fibers collected will be analyzed by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, which has both forensics capabilities and an environmental research lab. "We are absolutely going into this with an open mind," Pearson says.

But many doctors have already formed their own opinions about Morgellons. Jeffrey Meffert, a dermatologist and associate clinical professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, is a vocal Morgellons skeptic, often debunking the disease in presentations to colleagues. He says he sees at least one patient a month claiming to have Morgellons, but he diagnoses most of them with prurigo nodularis, a condition sometimes fueled by anxiety and characterized by chronic itching and scratching, which creates hardened nodules on the skin. More rarely, he says, patients have the mistaken belief that they are infested with parasites. "People with delusional parasitosis are very functional and rational except when it comes to this one issue," he says. "Many dermatologists would rather these patients never show up, because they don't feel they have the time to spend. No one knows how to deal with them."