As viral conditions are uppermost in all our thoughts at this time and the mysteries of some of them, like the coronavirus family, are yet to be fully fathomed by science, it is worth noting that common warts - caused by a virus - can also act very, very strangely indeed. These cutaneous warts (Verruca vulgaris) grow out of an infection of keratinocytes with human papilloma virus - but can appear and disappear as if by magick.
In my mid-40s I was suddenly cursed with rapid growth warts all over my fingers, knuckles and thumbs. They became increasingly unsightly and unattractive additions to two of the most visible parts of my body. I took to hiding them but that was difficult to accomplish when concluding business deals with a confirmatory handshake or even greeting new people and saying goodbye in a friendly manner. I took medical advice on wart removal treatments including all the painful proprietary brands of burning liquids and applied them; painfully. All proved useless. I got a referral to a dermatologist consultant specialising in warts who put my warty hands through a cryogenic freezing course of treatment. It was painful but again completely ineffective.
At some point I gave up seeking a cure from allopathic medicine and took to mechanics, using a sandpaper nail file to prune them or chewing them to slough off the dead skin. This didn’t stop the spread but was perversely satisfying although it usually resulted in bleeding and in the end I just gave up; period. Whatever, burnt, chewed, frozen...let it go, let it go.
Five years further down the warty timeline we went on a family Sunsail holiday to Turkey. Although we all got sun-browned fairly quickly, being out at sea every day, my warts turned into very conspicuous pulpy white blobs against my tanned skin. In a mid-week ‘have-a-go’ windsurf lesson something improbably extraordinary happened.
As an aside it was during this water sport activity that I nearly created a diplomatic incident by sailing too close, like an aquatic Icarus, to the invisible Greek maritime border. This was partly due to the fact that I was enjoying a terrific windy tack and in truth partly because I didn’t know how to turn round without falling off.
When I was delivered back to the instructor by the safety boat despatched by my anxious onshore wife, apart from being retrained in basic board management, he offhandedly said, in a strong Welsh accent,
“I see you have warts; I can help you with those”
I must have scoffed in a careworn derisory way so he earnestly persisted and said,
“I’ll buy your warts”
Now, I must say that this was a never previously uttered medical response. It seemed to be a novel form of using the capitalist system to overcome a dermatological problem. It was if the Bank of England could open the doors of its gold vaults to the NHS waiting lists and cure a range of skin conditions from eczema to elephantiasis by just showing people the gleaming ingots. He explained the transaction by detailing that I had to give him a few small coins and to run through a dialogue of me saying,
“I sell you my warts” - hand over the cash - and he would say “I buy your warts”.
So, albeit that I was at that moment dripping wet in my (cash-free) shortie wetsuit, my wife came over and scraped together a few Turkish lira in coins from her purse. I placed them (unexcitedly) into his hands at the appropriate time in this oddest of odd deals. He nodded in serious confirmation and I probably laughed out loud thinking it was a load of old cobblers. However, it was worth trying anything once. He just happened to be Welsh. Did I mention that?
That was the first and last of my sailboard lessons. After a few more days of pleasant dinghy sailing in the warm winds our holiday ended and we packed and headed for Bodrum airport. Waiting to board I happened to glance at my hands resting on my trolley handle and noticed that each warty cluster was surrounded now by a thin red ring. A week later nearly every wart had shrunk and two weeks later they had all completely disappeared. All of them, completely gone, for ever.
I was astounded, so astounded that I wrote a short letter to the British Medical Journal and recorded the details in print (but sadly since removed from the archive). I’m still curious about this phenomenon today and keen to learn how the improbable biochemistry and biophysics of this actually work. That something significant happened is self-evident but what? Do a number of Welsh people carry some genetic disposition in this particular line of work? What can it be? How do they do this?
Folk medicine abounds with similar stories and in some cases the transaction involves a simpler currency exchange or even just rubbing the wart with a coin. The most outlandish cures involve burying wart rubbed potatoes at a full moon but the most intriguing seem to be aligned with merely someone ‘talking away’ a wart from the afflicted victim. How can you talk away a virus?
How does this improbable result become possible?