A four-year study released in January by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention closes a chapter in one of the strangest outbreaks in the annals of medicine, but is unlikely the last word on the subject among thousands of Americans believed suffering from a baffling condition known as Morgellons.
About ten years ago, people across the country began complaining of unusual symptoms—fatigue and memory loss, itchiness, skin lesions, the sensation of insects crawling on the skin and, perhaps strangest of all, colored threads or fibers that appear to emerge from the skin.
The condition was named Morgellons in 2002 by Mary Leitao, a former Timonium resident whose son developed the symptoms. Leitao also founded the Morgellons Research Foundation.
The CDC's study found no medical or infectious basis for the condition.
"There is no obvious medical cause" for the symptoms, said CDC spokesperson Daniel Rutz.
"There is something going on," he said. "We're certainly not saying that people are making this up or it's all in their head. It certainly is a big deal to the people who are dealing with it."
Sufferers of Morgellons believe that an as-yet unidentified causative agent underlies the disorder, with suspects ranging from bacteria to fungi to nematodes and various parasites.
Some have taken remedies to extremes--high doses of antibiotics and fungicides, scrubbing the skin with bleach or gasoline, and applying household insecticides to the skin.
"One guy was spraying his body down with Raid several times a day, and also taking a little internally," said Atlanta pediatrician Gregory Smith.
The most difficult aspect of Morgellons to reconcile is the characteristic fibers that appear to emerge from the skin.
"I have this weird, incurable disease that seems like it's from outer space," singer Joni Mitchell said in a 2010 interview with the LA Times. "Fibers in a variety of colors protrude out of my skin like mushrooms after a rainstorm: they cannot be forensically identified as animal, vegetable or mineral. Morgellons is a slow, unpredictable killer — a terrorist disease: it will blow up one of your organs, leaving you in bed for a year."