Gulf War syndrome is real and afflicts one-fourth of the 700,000 U.S. troops who served in the War, says a panel report issued in November. A congressionally mandated scientific panel released the report concluding that the syndrome exists, which contradicts almost two decades of government denials. “The extensive body of scientific research now available consistently indicates that Gulf War illness is real, that it is a result of neurotoxic exposures during Gulf War deployment, and that few veterans have recovered or substantially improved with time,” according to the report.
The report comes from the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, chartered by Congress in 1998 but with no appointed members until 2002. The panel is made up of 15 members, including both scientists and veterans. Their report referred to two chemical exposures typically associated with the disorder: pyridostigmine bromide, given to troops to protect against nerve gas, and pesticides, often overused to protect against sand flies and other pests.
Many veterans reported memory loss, concentration problems, persistent headaches, unexplained fatigue, and widespread pain. Many also reported chronic digestive problems, respiratory symptoms, and skin rashes. The government maintained that the symptoms were due to stress or other unknown causes. “Veterans repeatedly find that their complaints are met with cynicism and a ‘blame the victim’ mentality that attributes their health problems to mental illness or non-physical factors,” said Roberta F. White, associate dean of research at the Boston University School of Health and the panel’s scientific director.
Prior reports issued by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that there was little evidence to support existence of the syndrome. The newest report claims that those reports and studies were restricted by the VA. The bulk of research and experiments on the effects of the chemicals were done on animals, but the VA ordered the Institute of Medicine to only consider human studies, which skewed the results. The panel called for the VA to allow the Institute of Medicine to redo its reports, taking into account all available research, including that done on animals.
Additionally, critics believe the VA was reluctant to spend funds on research and treatments that a research committee might recommend. The current panel has called for Congress to appropriate $60 million per year for research into finding a cure for the disorder.
Pyridostigmine bromide, a major cause of the disorder, was given to troops in the fear that Iraqis would resort to chemical warfare. Pesticides, another major cause, were sprayed around living and dining areas, as well as on tents and uniforms, the report stated. Another lesser cause was the demolition of Iraqi munitions, which may have exposed almost 100,000 troops to nerve gases stored at the facility.
Also observed in the report are the significantly higher rates of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis than other veterans, and that troops downwind from the munitions demolition had twice the rate of deaths from brain cancer as other veterans.
“Recognition of the full extent of the illnesses suffered by these veterans of the conflict and the obligation owed them is long overdue,” said Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord David Craig, chief of the British defense staff during the war. “They are victims of the war as much as anyone struck by a bullet or shell.” Panel chair James H. Binns emphasized, “The importance … lies in what is done with it in the future.”