sits outside her Queen Creek home, which is being renovated to
get rid of a parasite infestation.
Mystery parasites plague East Valley
By J. Craig Anderson, Tribune
When Sarah Brewer begged a state health
official in April to help rid her of thousands of tiny parasites
overtaking her home and burrowing beneath her skin, he gave her the
number of a good psychiatrist.
One after another, doctors have told the
Queen Creek resident and her loved ones that she suffers from a
mental condition known as “delusive parasitosis,” the false belief
that malignant organisms are living and crawling under the
Brewer is covered in blood-red sores, which doctors
have insisted are either self-induced or psychosomatic. She can’t
sleep. She can’t work. She feels sick. She talks of
“I’m about to lose everything I worked for because
everyone has abandoned me,” said Brewer, 37, in tears. “Even my
friends have turned against me — they thought I was just trying to
But in mid-August, she learned about a group
of medical researchers who say it’s the medical community that is
fooling itself, and that there is an all-too-real infestation with
strong East Valley ties that has ruined thousands of lives, torn
apart families and landed some victims in mental
There is even a support group online for people
with the illness, Brewer discovered, at
One researcher, Deborah Altschuler of
the nonprofit National Pediculosis Association, based in
Massachusetts, has been following the disease for years and says the
first victim she ever heard from was a Scottsdale
Altschuler formed the Pediculosis Association in 1983
to spread awareness about head lice and scabies, but her
organization soon began receiving calls about a bizarre skin disease
whose victims complained of unusual but nearly identical
“Unlike the doctors, we didn’t assume that they
didn’t know what they were talking about,” Altschuler said. “How
could they all be so crazy in the same way?”
has registered more than 1,800 victims with eerily similar stories.
The bulk of calls initially came from Arizona and California and has
now spread to Texas, New York, Florida and elsewhere.
Brewer, most victims believed they had been misdiagnosed as
delusional. Many ended up trying to treat themselves, with bug
sprays, lice treatments and folk cures that usually just made things
Many callers said their problems began after a water
leak or a flooding in the home — an interesting detail, Altschuler
thought. Could a leak somehow trigger an ecological avalanche that
leads to the disease?
In Brewer’s case, a washing machine
leak she discovered in December had allowed mold to grow undetected
under the floors, and the subsequent damage gave mice and the filth
they carry on their bodies an entryway into her air-conditioning
ducts. For weeks, Brewer unwittingly blew the contaminants into her
home simply by turning on the air conditioner.
By the time
she realized what was going on, Brewer was suffering from a laundry
list of symptoms including headaches, nausea and skin
Then the sores came, and the crawling sensations.
Brewer said she began to see black, hairlike organisms breaking
through the surface of her skin and then disappearing back
“I could feel them running down my arm and
hatching and stuff,” she said.
None who challenge the
“delusive” diagnosis claim to understand the disease’s true cause,
but one possibility is that the victim becomes contaminated with
mold or bacteria, and then tiny organisms that feed off those
substances take over.
Altschuler’s group published a study in
June that seems to support the mold theory.
They selected 20
people at random and collected samples of their skin, which were
analyzed and photographed digitally through a
What they captured on film has some scientists
scratching their heads — and others shaking theirs in utter
Collembola, tiny shrimplike invertebrates that
feed on fungus and bacteria, were found in 18 of the 20 test
subjects, while none appeared in skin samples from the study’s
control group, the study states.
“There were massive amounts
of them,” Altschuler said.
What does it mean? The results
were not conclusive, but because collembola break down organic
matter including fungus and bacteria, those substances are likely a
factor in their presence.
Still, Altschuler and her theories
have their critics.
Arizona Department of Health Services
vector-borne disease program manager Craig Levy said Altschuler has
been talking about collembola for years as a cause for skin disease,
but that leading research organizations such as the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention disagree.
“If the CDC had
found any such evidence to support it, we would have all heard about
it,” Levy said.
Although the Pediculosis Association’s
peer-reviewed study was done in conjunction with the Oklahoma State
Department of Health and published in the New York Entomological
Society journal, biologist Ken Christiansen of Grinnell College in
Iowa said he is dubious of the results and doesn’t think the
air-breathing collembola could even survive underneath human
“I personally would be delighted if collembola could be
shown to be disease agents, but we need real evidence,” said
Christiansen, who has specialized in collembola studies since
Still, he is convinced the skin disease is not
Whatever the cause, Altschuler said she is
trying to raise awareness so more research can be done.
many victims, Brewer’s symptoms begin to subside as long as she
stays away from her house. For this reason, she has all but
abandoned the home she worked so hard to buy.
She now lives a
nomadic lifestyle, staying at a friend or relative’s home until her
host’s frustration over the lack of improvement or fear of
contracting the illness forces Brewer to move on.
lost her job of 17 years at a major food store chain (it’s illegal
for workers to have open sores), she has no health insurance, bills
are piling up and she’s about to lose the home that inexplicably
turned against her.
Insurance has paid for some of the
repairs, cleaning and fumigating her home requires, but Brewer still
gets sick whenever she goes there.
Worst of all, Brewer said,
is the fact that she can’t get anyone to believe her, much less
“I feel that I’ve totally slipped between the
cracks,” she said.
Contact J. Craig Anderson by
or phone (480) 898-6474
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