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Health Scare: The Diseases That Didn't Exist

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The course of science does not run always run in a straight, smooth line to the truth. There are hazards along the way, some of which, with the most honest of intentions, are strewn across the way by the public. Illnesses of the mind are one thing, but illnesses born of the mind are another, and once an idea has taken root within an anxious psyche, it can take more than medicine to stop it from swelling into a societal panic. At the heart of these pseudo-illnesses are a modern mistrust of science and the belief that one’s own sufferings resist medical knowledge. Three such diseases are Morgellons, Chronic Lyme Disease and Heavy Legs (otherwise known as jambes lourdes).

Morgellons – The Disease That Bit

Imagine a disease that spreads as fast as human communication, causes insufferable itching which leads the sufferer to claw at their body, and causes fibrous matter to emerge from the skin. Imagine also that on presenting these symptoms to your doctor, you are at best waved away, or at worst told you have a mental illness called delusional parasitosis. Medical science does not recognize Morgellons and the sores and lesions of its sufferers are, as governmental reports have declared, self-inflicted and the result of psychosis. The sprouting fibrous matter, according to scientific reports, are no more than common household debris, such as strands of clothing, carpeting, hair, or in extreme cases, nerve endings plucked from the body by incessant scratching. The Morgellons support groups claim something more sinister for these symptoms: the work of alien organisms, or rogue nanobots, chemical warfare, government conspiracies, or living in proximity to genetically manipulated plants.

The parents of a two-year-old boy in Boston in 2001, who’d developed mouth sores and complained of ‘bugs’ on his skin, brought the condition to world notice. Mary and Edward Leitao refused to accept the repeated verdict of physicians that their son was suffering from nothing more than eczema, or even just being a two-year-old child, and so resolved to dig deeper for answers. And in a way, digging deeper became the problem.

That modern miracle the Internet is a marvellous thing, and is always good for letting you find whatever it is you looking for, no matter how unlikely. The Leitaos burrowed until they uncovered a possible explanation for their son’s condition in 'Morgellons', a disease which once supposedly afflicted children in the southern French province of Languedoc, and described by English polymath Sir Thomas Browne in a letter written in 1656, but not published until 1690, thirteen years after Browne’s death. Bear in mind that in the seventeenth century, people believed that women could give birth to rabbits and scrofula could be cured from the laying on of hands by the King of England, but the Leitaos, out of desperate concern for their child, leaped upon Browne’s letter. The word of Morgellons was soon spreading online as fast as a lolcat meme.

The Leitaos founded the Morgellons Research Foundation, and organized sufferers to lobby Congress, who in 2006 gave their backing for an investigation into the disease, conducted by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In 2010, Morgellons claimed its first celebrity victim, folk singer Joni Mitchell, who claimed in a newspaper interview she had contracted Morgellons, and was leaving the music business to champion the cause of those with the disease. A year later, and an English newspaper reporter, Will Storr, attended a convention for Morgellons sufferers in Texas. Seeing a crowd gathered around a microscope an attendant had brought along, Storr placed his hand under the lens. At once, he found an unknown fiber in his skin, and was given an anti-bacterial wipe to clean it away. Looking though the microscope again, he found another, even bigger fiber, in its place. Despite the concern of those present, Storr refused to believe he had any disease.

Six years after the CDC began their investigation the body concluded there was no infectious or pathological element to Morgellons, or any cause to believe it was anything other than a delusion on the part of the sufferers, some of whom, the report concluded, had actually contracted dermatitis. In every instance, analysis proved the mysterious growths were materials commonly found in clothing.  

The Morgellons Research Foundation closed soon afterwards, but advocate groups still prosper online, to whom government reports only increase their sense of cover-up. Those who believe they have Morgellons experience undeniable suffering, and the idea of grievous itching and strange material growing from the skin is a horrible one, but just as a light in the sky does not mean a spacecraft from another world, so not every strand found on the skin means a terrorist biological weapons attack or an unknown malignant contagion. Perhaps the moral of the story is scratching at an itch, only causes further inflammation.

The Curious Case of Chronic Lyme Disease

Lyme Disease is endemic to the Northern Hemisphere and afflicts eight in every 100,000 US citizens every year. The illness came to light after a cluster of cases in the late 1970s around the towns of Lyme and Old Lyme in Connecticut, and by 1981, when bites from infected deer ticks were found as the causing the disease, and scientists established medical procedures for treatment. However, A third of those with Lyme's 'develop' Chronic Lyme Disease, when the disease continues, and worsens, after the three or four course week course of antibiotics it takes to treat the original condition. 

As a ‘recent’ disease however, Lyme is not as well understood as other maladies, allowing room 

Lyme Disease symptom
for doubters and conspiracy theorists, who believe Chronic Lyme Disease develops as a result of bacteria surviving the original treatment, or the case being more severe than first recognized. Some advocates go further, and suggest the disease is synthetic or the result of out-of-control genetic engineering which began in an animal disease laboratory in New York. Symptoms of Chronic Lyme Disease include disturbed sleep, confusion, aches and fatigue. The CDC does not recognize the condition, and nor does the Infectious Disease Society of America who in 2006 became embroiled in a legal case challenging their stance on the condition. 

Researchers looking into Lyme Disease over recent years believe something does happen to certain Lyme’s sufferers after completion of their treatment. Contrary to proponents of Chronic Lyme Disease however, medical scientists believe 'Post Lyme Disease' is caused by the damage to the immune system left by bacteria since destroyed by antibiotics. Other incidents of Chronic Lyme Disease explained as ordinary cases of Lyme Disease left too long without correct medical treatment.

Despite this, advocates of Chronic continue to win ground, and several states (Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, California and Massachusetts) allow medical practitioners to treat Lyme Disease for longer than before, despite the potential danger in prolonged use of antibiotics. All this after the independent panel, brought in to adjudicate on the 2006 legal case, concluded IDSA’s guidelines on Lyme Disease should stay in place, and it had nothing to answer for as regards Chronic Lyme Disease. The subject remains controversial and some doctors have become wary of accepting Lyme patients for fear of further legal disputes and harassment.

The Illness That Got Up and Walked

Male legs
Ten years ago, the number of Heavy Legs sufferers correlated precisely with French hypochondria, as this self-explanatory illness was almost by nature exclusively Gallic. Popular remedies in France include cream made from grape seeds and the curiously Austen-esque treatment of walking in the sea. On hearing of the condition when she moved to France, BBC reporter Emma Jane Kirby mentioned it to a local pharmacist in Paris, who was sympathetic, offered a range of over the counter treatments and compared symptoms with the reporter, who had never heard of the illness while in Great Britain. What is it that causes French legs to feel so heavy?

Medical opinion now believes that when it isn't plain hypochondria, Heavy Legs is a symptom of circulatory problems, such as obstructed lower arteries, or difficulties in the blood pumping back from the lower limbs to the heart, or even the early stages of thrombosis. Minor diseases of the veins are treatable with food rich in flavonoids (onions, blueberries, bananas and dark chocolate, for example) or by applying a gel to legs to stimulate circulation. As for Heavy Legs itself, Kirby noted once French insurance companies stopped recognizing the disease, the number of sufferers fell away.  


An ABC TV Clip of a Discussion on Lyme Disease



Nov 8, 2014 8:12am
The Morgellons idiots were the ones that made me disgusted beyond reason when I first heard of them years ago. Not even a real disease there; I don't understand how this even came to be "recognized" in the first place except for that one woman who started this crap in the first place (sorta like that idiot Jenny McCarthy who refuses to believe it was her defective genes or that of her baby daddy that gave her kid autism and not childhood vaccinations). Good article and good feature! Thumb's up!
Nov 27, 2014 7:45pm
An extremely well-written article. The info on Chronic Lyme Disease was an update for me: frankly I never bothered to learn enough about it, since we don't encounter Lyme in the populations we serve. Being in Neurology practice for the last 20 years, the most common diagnosis in this category (IMHO) is Fibromyalgia. This is one label created by medical practitioners rather than the lay public - possibly to assuage guilt feelings of hypochondriacs or to ensure Insurance claims are not rejected. In my opinion, people with Fibromyalgia - as well as those you described in your article - are suffering from an illness with somatic symptoms - but no pathologic abnormalities may be found, nor a pathophysiology may be worked out basis our inadequate technology. The mind is the generator of all our experience, including physical illnesses; medical science merely works out the mechanism. Once you take that perspective, then there is no prejudice against illnesses such as Morgellons or Fibromyalgia; these are merely those experiences we get which leave no or very little physical traces in the body. In fact, these 'illnesses' are far more deadly - for obvious reasons.
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