In body or mind? CDC studying mystery disease

Morgellons subject of research project

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in conjunction with Kaiser Permanente's Northern California Division of Research will formally investigate an unexplained but persistently reported skin condition known as Morgellons.

People who suffer from the condition report a range of symptoms, including nonhealing skin lesions associated with the emergence of fibers or solid material from the skin, abnormal skin sensations (such as stinging and biting or pins and needles) and noncutaneous symptoms such as difficulty concentrating and short-term memory loss.

Patients who report Morgellons are often thought to be suffering psychiatric illness (e.g., delusional parasitosis), but the CDC study indicates some infectious etiology or other disease origin is not being ruled out. Indeed, some observers have previously speculated that the condition could be linked to fungi or bacteria of plant origin. Lead investigator in the project is Michele Pearson, MD, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC's national center for infectious diseases.

Kaiser's research division in Oakland, CA, was awarded a $338,000 contract to assist the CDC in the investigation because many self-reported cases are in the geographic area and already in the Kaiser system. CDC also is bringing in the Armed Forces Pathology Institute. The primary goals of the investigation are to better describe the clinical and epidemiological features of the condition and possible risk factors.

The investigation may take a year or longer to complete. Initially, investigators will identify and recruit participants and collect detailed information on participants' symptoms and potential factors that may contribute to the condition. Later, eligible participants will undergo detailed clinical evaluations, including a general medical examination, dermatologic examination, mental health examination, skin biopsies, and multiple blood tests.

A message line with prerecorded messages [(404) 718-1199] has been established and will provide updates about the investigation and new information as it becomes available. The CDC has also set up a web site to provide information at www.cdc.gov/unexplaineddermopathy.