WASHINGTON U.S. health authorities on Wednesday said they will conduct an investigation to get to the bottom of an unexplained illness marked by skin lesions that do not heal and a batch of other symptoms.
The illness is called Morgellons disease, and some doctors have questioned whether it is a real medical condition. An advocacy group seeking a cure said doctors have diagnosed some people with its symptoms as delusional -- a view the group rejects.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said its investigation may take at least a year and will involve patients in northern California. The CDC said the condition's cause and prevalence are unknown. The study will be done with the Armed Forces Pathology Institute and Kaiser Permanente.
The CDC said symptoms attributed to Morgellons include non-healing skin lesions, abnormal crawling, biting and stinging skin sensations, the presence of fibers or other foreign material on or beneath the skin, fatigue, mental confusion, memory loss, joint pain and changes in vision.
During a telephone briefing with reporters, Dr. Michele Pearson, lead CDC investigator in the study, was asked whether she was prepared to call Morgellons a real medical condition.
"What I can tell you is real is the suffering that these patients are experiencing," Pearson said. "I cannot characterize this as a syndrome, as a disease. I can tell you it's an unexplained illness."
Mary Leitao, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Morgellons Research Foundation, who said her son has the disease, called the investigation a positive step. She said Morgellons is a genuine medical condition with consistent symptoms, adding, "I think it's an infectious disease."
The study will focus on patients in the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Health Plan who sought medical care during an 18-month period ending last month for symptoms consistent with those attributed to Morgellons disease, according to Dr. Joe Selby, a senior Kaiser Permanente researcher.
They will undergo thorough clinical evaluation including mental health examination, Pearson said.
The Morgellons Research Foundation, formed in 2002, has compiled a list of more than 11,000 families in various countries with at least one person affected by the condition.
Some U.S. lawmakers have pressed the CDC in recent years to look into the disease.
The foundation said on its Web site that some people seeing doctors for symptoms of the condition have been "diagnosed with a common medical label, Delusions of Parasitosis (DP), the basic tenet being this is a psychiatric illness with the presumption of a purely delusional 'parasite infestation.'"
The foundation rejected that diagnosis.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)