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Analysis: Gulf War Illness Still Incurable

http://www.upi.com/Health_ Business/Analysis/2007/07/27/analysis_gulf_war_illness_still_incurable/1662/

Analysis: Gulf War illness still incurable
By ROSALIE WESTENSKOW
UPI Correspondent

WASHINGTON, July 27 (UPI) -- Many U.S. Gulf War veterans continue to
suffer from mysterious illnesses more than 16 years after the
conflict ended, several witnesses testified this week before a
congressional committee.

"One in four of those who served -- 175,000 veterans -- remains
seriously ill," James Binns, chairman of the Research Advisory
Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, said at a House of
Representatives Health subcommittee hearing.

Gulf War syndrome or illness manifests itself through a plethora of
symptoms, including dizziness, fatigue, diarrhea and other
gastrointestinal problems, severe headaches, respiratory problems,
stiffness and difficulty concentrating. Veterans began displaying
these symptoms before the war ended in 1991, but a decade and a half
later, many physicians feel unsure of how to treat these patients

"There remains no effective treatment," Binns said.

In the absence of any cure, many doctors resort to treating each
individual symptom with different medications, such as sleeping pills
and diarrhea medication, said Meryl Nass from Mount Desert Island
Hospital in Bar Harbor, Maine, who has conducted a specialty clinic
to treat patients with Gulf War syndrome for eight years.

"It's a piecemeal approach," Nass said at the hearing. "You can
improve their functioning maybe 30 or 40 percent, but they certainly
don't get cured."

One of the difficulties in treating the illness lies in general
confusion over the exact causes of the illness and a lack of
effective research on treatments, witnesses said. Although research
has not proven definitive causes, the high level of toxins military
personnel were exposed to probably caused most of the damage, said
Lea Steele, scientific director of the Research Advisory Committee on
Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.

"The most consistent and extensive amount of available evidence
implicates a group of chemicals to which veterans were exposed that
can have toxic effects on the brain," Steele said. "These chemicals
include pills -- NAPP pills or pyridostigmine -- given to protect
troops from the effects of nerve agents, excessive use of pesticides
and low levels of nerve gas."

Other toxins include smoke from more than 600 burning Kuwaiti oil
wells, military vaccines and low-level doses of chemical weapons,
Steele said.

While the symptoms of Gulf War syndrome overlap with those of many
other illnesses, they manifest themselves much more heavily in Gulf
War veterans than those from other eras, suggesting something
specific in the Gulf War triggered this new syndrome, Steele said.

"It's not what we see in the general population and it's not what we
see in any other veterans group this age," she said.

This hodgepodge of health problems seen in Gulf War veterans is not
simply a manifestation of psychological problems either, Steele said.

"Comprehensive studies have found no connection between Gulf War
illness and combat experiences in the war," she said. "This stands to
reason since, in contrast to current deployments, severe stress and
trauma were relatively uncommon in the 1991 Gulf War."

The war itself lasted for less than six months, with only four days
of ground combat.

The $260 million spent on Gulf War illness research by the Department
of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs has resulted in few
breakthroughs, Nass said. One reason for this lies in an a focus on
psychiatric causes, instead of toxins or vaccines and research that
did look at these factors often had faulty methodology, leading to
useless results, she said.

"Failed research does not happen by itself," Nass said.

In many studies, the wrong questions were asked, dubious research
methods were used or sample sizes were too small to yield
statistically significant data.

Much of this research resulted from an effort to discount veterans'
claims that their sickness resulted from their military service, said
Anthony Hardie, legislative chair and national treasurer for Veterans
of Modern Warfare, a veterans advocacy organization.

"Years were squandered disputing whether Gulf War veterans were
really ill, studying stress (and) reporting that what was wrong with
Gulf War veterans was the same as after every war," Hardie said. "An
incredible amount of effort was put into disproving the claims of
countless veterans testifying before Congress about chemical and
other exposures."

However, Veterans Affairs officials said the department has
continuously worked to respond to the unique symptoms of Gulf War
veterans.

"Even before the 1991 Gulf War ceasefire, VA had concerns that
returning veterans might have certain unique health problems,
including respiratory effects from exposure to the intense oil fire
smoke," said Lawrence Deyton, chief public health and environmental
hazards officer for the Veterans Health Administration. "VA quickly
established a clinical registry to screen for this possibility. "

But the data collected from the registry does not prove that Gulf War
veterans suffer from any unique illness, Deyton said.

"After 15 years, the principal finding from VA's systematic clinical
registry examination of about 14 percent of 1991 Gulf War veterans is
that they are suffering from a wide variety of common, recognized
illnesses," he said. "However, no new or unique syndrome has been
identified."

The department did ask Congress for the authority to provide
disability coverage, though, to veterans with difficult-to diagnose
or undiagnosed illnesses who claimed the problem stemmed from
military service.

"This statute as amended authorizes VA to pay compensation for
disabilities that cannot be diagnosed as a specific disease or
injury, or for certain illnesses with unknown cause including chronic
fatigue syndrome ... and irritable bowel syndrome," Deyton said.

However, the government should take greater responsibility for
conducting research on how to treat these veterans, said Brig. Gen.
Thomas Mikolajcik, a Gulf War veteran diagnosed with amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis, ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, a rare condition that
causes a progressive degeneration of the nerve cells in the brain and
occurs twice as much in military personnel as among the rest of the
population and two times as often among Gulf War veterans as other
veterans.

"Establish a congressionally directed ALS Task Force with specific
milestones and a time line," Mikolajcik said.

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