Bug's life: a woman tends to a shelf full of cockroaches in jars in a lab, c.1955. Photo: Getty
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The patient complained of insects crawling on her skin. Then she handed me a glass jar

The “matchbox sign” describes the tendency of a particular sort of patient to bring spurious evidence in a small container to show the doctor.

Erica was hugely frustrated. “I’ve had the council round several times, they’ve fumigated the whole place twice, and still I’m getting bitten.” I peered at her lower legs. There were scattered red lumps and lots of scratch marks. The pest control officer, having exhausted his insecticidal repertoire, had sent Erica along to me.

The commonest reason for someone being eaten alive in their own home is the death of a cat. Fleas live in carpets, hopping on to the resident pet when in need of food. As long as Tiddles remains hale and hearty, human beings are bitten only sporadically. But a few weeks after a feline departure, the now-starving fleas start to feast on the grieving owner. Erica, however, denied any previous pet ownership. And flea bites are typically clustered around the ankles and lower shins, whereas Erica said she was affected all over.

I scrutinised the skin of her wrist and the web spaces between her fingers. Infestation with scabies is surprisingly common, and those areas are favourite locations for the mites. There was nothing to see, though. And while most of her torso was scratched and bump-strewn, her mid-back was blemish-free. This pattern suggests something called prurigo. Incessant scratching of normal skin results in raised red prurigo lumps, which can easily be mistaken for insect bites. The area between the shoulder blades remains unaffected, though, because it is impossible to scratch there concertedly.

Numerous conditions can cause generalised itching, from iron deficiency to an underactive thyroid. I took blood samples and gave Erica a prescription for a bottle of Eurax – a fantastic lotion that will suppress itching, whatever the cause. A week later the blood tests were back, and normal. Erica was back, too. And this time she’d brought specimens of the offending insects to show me. “There!” she announced, handing me a little glass jar. Inside were a couple of wisps of dark fluff and some indeterminate bits of debris. Not even tapping the contents on to my palm for a sift-through could produce any evidence of life forms.

Something about the little glass jar rang a bell. The “matchbox sign” describes the tendency of a particular sort of patient to bring spurious evidence in a small container to show the doctor. I looked at Erica afresh: in her late fifties, a trifle eccentric, but absolutely no history or indication of any mental or physical illness. I wondered if she might have Ekbom syndrome, or delusional parasitosis.

Delusional parasitosis is a belief that one is infested with some sort of parasite. In all other respects the patient is functioning normally, and so presents a convincing account of his or her troubles to pest control personnel, doctors and veterinarians. A big problem with Ekbom’s is the characteristic refusal of the sufferer to accept that he or she is suffering from a mental illness. Antipsychotic drugs, more often used for treating schizophrenia, can be very effective, but most patients reject them out of hand.

“I’d like you to try these tablets,” I told Erica. “They’re usually used to treat schizophrenia, but bizarrely enough they’re also quite likely to reduce the itch and the rash you’re experiencing.” I smiled, hoping she wouldn’t probe my explanation. I wasn’t lying as such; just being careful which bits of the picture I painted.

She returned to the surgery a month later and, to my relief, had taken the tablets. “It’s amazing,” she told me, “it’s completely better.” She showed me a few areas of pristine skin, and then she fell silent for a few moments. When she spoke again her voice was lowered, embarrassed. “Doctor, was I psychotic?”

“Well, yes,” I told her, and explained about Ekbom syndrome. With recovery had come full insight, and she recounted, with something akin to awe, how she now looked at the specimens she’d collected and could see that they were nothing but fluff, but could clearly remember perceiving them as dead insects. And the persistent sensation of things crawling over her skin had been utterly real to her.

Ekbom’s is fascinating and rare; I doubt I’ll see another case. Pest control officers probably encounter it more often. I imagine they have a cut-off – perhaps two failed fumigations, or when the homeowner starts to present them with bits of debris in a matchbox – when they suggest that a doctor might be better placed to help with this particular infestation. 

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder