What's causing Gulf War illness?
- What's causing Gulf War illness?TRAVIS DUNNWASHINGTON (November 6, 2002) Disaster News Network
Research into the causes of unexplained Gulf War illnesseswill get $20 million in FY 2004, the Department of VeteransThat's twice the funding such research has received from the federalgovernment in any previous year.In addition, the theory that Gulf War illnesses have a neurological basis, and may have been caused by chemical exposure, will receive considerable attention, in part because of a spate of new studies published over the past year."Clearly, the past decade has not covered the VA in glory," said VADeputy Secretary Leo S. Mackay, in an Oct. 28 address to the ResearchAdvisory Committee (RAC) on Gulf War Illnesses. "However, since takingoffice last year, this Administration -- under Secretary Principi's leadership --has begun to change that...there is increasing objective evidence that a majorcategory of Gulf War illnesses is neurological in character. Some of you havebeen stating that for some time, and I applaud your persistence.""...[T]he VA intends to send a message to researchers," Mackay said."We want to underscore the fact that research into Gulf War illnesses isan area ripe for important discoveries. That there is honor in this work.Not only to improve the health of veterans of the Gulf War, but to protectAmerican troops and civilians in the future. And that there is money tosupport new hypotheses. We want the best researchers and the bestideas brought to bear on this longstanding problem."The announcement follows publication of a new British study, fundedby the Department of Defense, which discredits the theory that mostunexplained Gulf War illnesses are psychosomatic, or the result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).The study, published in the Sept. 14 issue of the British Medical Journal,found that psychological factors alone could not explain all the symptomsexperienced by afflicted Gulf War veterans."Whatever the nature of ill health in Gulf veterans, it was not explainedby events or exposures conventionally understood to be psychologicallytraumatic," concluded the study.To date, the federal government has spent more than $213 million on224 different research projects on Gulf War illnesses with a wide rangeof symptoms including chronic fatigue, sleeping problems, irritability,bouts of dizziness, memory loss, chronic pain and concentration problems.A June RAC report estimates 25-30 percent of Gulf War veterans sufferedfrom unexplained illnesses. That's between 175,000 and 210,000 of theroughly 700,000 veterans who served in that war.Some hail the recent announcement as a major shift in government policy.Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War ResourceCenter, a veterans' advocacy group, said he was stunned.Robinson also serves on RAC, the group Mackay addressed last week.Another member of that committee, Dr. Robert Haley, called Mackay'sannouncement "big news."Not, he said, because of the increase in research funding, but becauseof a major change in policy and attitude at the VA regarding Gulf Warillnesses.The big change, Haley said, is in focus -- from combat stress and PTSDto a neurological basis for the symptoms."[VA Secretary] Principi is on a roll here," Haley said. "This is a majorsea change at the VA. For eight years we've run into bureaucrats whotried to stop us every step of the way."Robinson also praises Principi, as well as Mackay, for leadership inthe research initiative, but he had nothing but contempt for thebureaucrats in the VA and the DoD, who Robinson thinks have beentrying to cover up the true nature of Gulf War illnesses for more thana decade."The department [of defense] lied for almost seven years" about thepresence of biological and chemical agents in Iraq during the PersianGulf War, Robinson said.It wasn't that long ago, he said, that those who demanded investigatingneurological causes were "ridiculed and demonized."Dr. Vinh Cam has also been advocating intense research into neurologicalcauses for years.Cam served from 1998-2001 on the Presidential Advisory Commissionon Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses established by President Clinton.But Cam's opinions were generally disregarded by the Commission, shesaid. And when she pressed for more research into neurotoxicity,immunotoxicity, genetic polymorphism and the synergistic effects ofvarious pesticides and chemicals as possible causes, Cam said shewas pressured by other members of the commission, including ChairmanWarren Rudman, "to go along with the overall tone" of the report, whichfocused on stress research, she said.Cam, a researcher herself, had done work for Rockefeller University onLou Gehrig's disease and multiple sclerosis, maladies that have symptomssimilar to those Gulf War veterans were experiencing. Her scientificopinion: neither combat stress nor PTSD were the right areas to lookfor answers."I'm glad that they're finally doing something in that area," Cam said. "Ihad pointed out that they should look beyond stress."Dr. Haley, while a member of the VA research committee, is also anepidemiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centerin Dallas, and he has personally conducted pioneering research into theneurological causes.The studies he has conducted, he said, have found brain damage inafflicted veterans, "almost certainly from sarin nerve gas," he said.He said, however, that the "cocktail theory" is also plausible -- that is,that a combination of nerve gas, nerve gas antidote tablets as well asover-exposure to pesticides and DEET-based insecticides could have"a synergistic effect" which resulted in the Gulf War illnesses. But thestress theory, he said, doesn't explain anything.Using magnetic resonance spectroscopy, Haley and his colleagueshave determined that test subjects had lost brain cells in their brainstems and basal ganglia. Brain damage in the brain stem can causeproblems with attention and balance; damage in the basal ganglia cancause depression, concentration difficulties and otherwise inexplicablepain. All of these have been reported as symptoms of Gulf War illnesses.Part of the $20 million pledged by the VA for new studies will "createa Center of Excellence in medical imaging," Mackay said in his Oct.28 address. This decision, Haley said, is also indicative of the newseriousness the VA is showing the neurological research.Haley's studies, however, were not funded by the federal government.They were funded by H. Ross Perot."Thank goodness for Ross Perot," Haley said. If not for Perot, Haleythinks Gulf War illnesses would have been written off as "stress-related" back in 1995."[The federal government] channeled all the research to the psychologicaltheories," Haley said. "They were clearly orchestrating all this so noresearch would go down that road [neurological research].""Don't get me wrong. I am one to resist conspiracy theories," Haley said.He sees no diabolical plot here, only "a very cynical comedy of errors."He believes certain elements of the DoD and VA thought, "We're nevergoing to be able to solve this, so let's just make it go away.""It's bureaucracy," Haley said.DoD spokesperson Barbara Goodno called Haley's work "preliminary"since it dealt with only a small group of veterans. Therefore, she said,the area "requires further study.""The effort to build on those studies is underway," Goodno said. "Thereis a great deal to be learned from this work. Not only for veterans butfor society at large," she said.But that's how these studies work, Haley said. It takes a series of suchsmall studies to build up a convincing body of evidence. Some of themhave already been done.Two other research teams -- led by Dr. Han Kang in Washington andDr. Michael Weiner in San Francisco -- replicated his findings. BothKang and Weiner are funded by the VA."In science," Haley said, "the name of the game is replication." Goodnosaid the DoD is supportive of the new turn that research is taking."The Department of Defense supports all actions focused on achievinga better understanding of the illnesses of Gulf War veterans," she said."To that end, DoD has been involved in a collaborative effort with thedepartments of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services since1994. The investigative effort has not been restricted; in fact, the changingnature of the studies reflect an effort to build on the findings of earlierresearch, scientific breakthroughs and improved technologies."Other veterans' groups, think that the recent VA announcement doesn'tgo far enough.Kirt Love, director of the Desert Storm Battle Registry, is also a GulfWar veteran afflicted by an unexplained illness he attributes to histour of duty in the war.Love thinks the area of research specified by last week's VA announcementis too limited, and that RAC is still understaffed and underfinanced.Love advocates the creation of a database of tissue samples from GulfWar veterans, as well as a comprehensive reporting system in order toget as many veterans as possible in research programs."They can recommend all the research in the world," he said, "but if theycan't get people in the door, nothing's going to happen."Love is also bothered by the "the high attrition rate" of anyone involvedin Gulf War illness issues, whether they are committee members oremployees of the DoD or VA.According to Love, most of these people, such as Dr. Cam, last onlya few years at their posts. This means that new people keep comingto the issue with little experience. (Dr. Cam said she tried to gainmembership on RAC, after her term on the presidential commissionlapsed. She was passed over.)Love is also bothered that afflicted veterans like himself are kept at thefringes of the discussion."I'm living the whole thing," Love said. "It's not easy -- it's a nightmare."The DoD, he is convinced, does not want research to make any realprogress."They want it to fail," he said, "so they can wrap it up."Love is most worried, however, that no significant lessons have beenlearned from what happened in the first Gulf War, as the U.S. is poisedto enter another war in the same region."We going to be repeating the same mistakes with Gulf War II," he said.Posted November 6, 2002 4:05 PM