“Bugs,” the two year old boy said as he pointed to an irritated patch of skin on his face. Mary Leitao looked closer, and although she found no visible insects, she was startled to find colored fibers sprouting from her son’s skin. It was a summer evening in 2001 that would change the lives of the Leitao family for years to come.
A medical researcher turned stay-at home mom, Leitao had never
seen anything like it and neither had her husband, Edward, an internist at South Allegheny Internal Medicine. Mary Leitao took her son to be examined by numerous doctors, but none provided a satisfactory explanation. Many suggested that it was a form of psychosis called “delusional infestation” or the conviction of being infected with parasites.
Believing instead that she had discovered a new disease, Leitao named the condition Morgellons and in 2004 established a non-profit organization called the Morgellons Research Foundation (MRF).
Through the efforts of the MRF, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) conducted a three-year government study to research Morgellons. The results, released last week, indicated that there was no diseased organisms or parasites present in the 115 case-patients. The protruding fibers were found to be mostly skin fragments or clothing fibers stuck to the skin and, according to the report, the physical ailments were manifestations of “delusional infestation.”
According to a recent article in WebMD, individuals with delusional infestation tend to be hyper-aware of normal body sensations and interpret them as medical illness. The article notes, “This stress has real physical effects on the body and leads to a spiral of worsening physical symptoms…”
The suggestion that thoughts and stress can be manifested as physical maladies may be counterintuitive to anatomy-based medicine, but research increasingly supports the idea. For instance, The Washington Post reported, “Nocebos [inert pills provided with a negative expectation] often cause a physical effect, but it’s not a physically produced effect,” said Irving Kirsch, a psychologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs who studies the ways that expectations influence what people experience.
The idea that the condition may be more mental than physical has always been unpopular among those who identify themselves with the disease. It has impelled them to fight on two fronts – working to gain credibility and help from the medical community and fighting the unfortunate stigma of mental illness. With the significant setback of the CDC report, how many may be wondering, what next?
I have compassion for those suffering from Morgellons. No one should have to live with the painful symptoms or the mental anguish of feeling isolated, abandoned and uncared for. Yet, perhaps it’s time to consider the mental nature of the condition. I’m not proposing antipsychotic drugs( considered the medical “treatment of choice” for delusional infestation), but a spiritual approach.
For instance, in the recent Jan. 29 issue of the Concord Monitor, a woman describes her recovery from disease as she changed her thought to a more prayerful perspective. Shifting thought away from the body to seeking a greater understanding of her spiritual nature worked for her.
As the mental factors of many diseases become more widely understood, spiritual treatments, such as Christian Science, that focus on thought can be a valuable resource. The MRF website reports that fear and hopelessness are common among those who suffer from Morgellons. Working spiritually to lessen and eliminate these unhealthy mental states may be the best next step.