(Photo: Lietmotiv / Flickr)
As many as 250,000 veterans of the first Gulf War have ongoing, unexplained medical symptoms, according to a recent report on physical complaints known as Gulf War syndrome. The symptoms were experienced by many soldiers soon after the United States drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in early 1991.
The conclusion is part of a recent report by the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine, which said that the only illness that was definitely caused by the Gulf War is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"There is no greater service that a human being can provide to one's fellow citizens than to risk life and health on their behalf," the report said. "We are honored to dedicate this report to these troops."
A survey of 10,000 veterans in 2005 concluded that 37 percent of those who were in the Gulf War had the multi-symptom illness, also known as Gulf War syndrome, compared with 12 percent of veterans who were deployed somewhere else.
"There is no doubt that many of the soldiers deployed to the Gulf region during 1990-1991 have continued to experience troubling constellations of symptoms involving multiple body systems," the report said. "These have been variously termed Gulf War illness or multi-symptom illness, and as such are emblazoned in the public's mind as a consequence of military service in this battleground."
Many other service members have not experienced the full array of Gulf War illness symptoms but continue to suffer from seemingly related symptoms, including persistent fatigue, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, memory problems, headache, body pains, disturbances of sleep, as well as other physical and emotional problems.
"Many of these symptoms are difficult to categorize as they have no known cause, no objective findings on clinical examination, no diagnostic biomarkers, no known tissue pathology, and no curative therapy," the report said.
"The inadequate basic understanding of the root cause of these symptoms highlights the limitations of current medical science and clinical practice. The committee recognizes that symptoms that cannot be easily quantified are sometimes dismissed - incorrectly - as insignificant, and that they receive inadequate attention - and funding - by the medical and scientific establishment."
The IOM panel, whose members include academic physicians and epidemiologists, reviewed 1,000 studies, focusing on 400 completed since the institute's last review of Gulf War illnesses in 2006.
Many veterans think exposure to pesticides, medicines and environmental toxins hurt soldiers' brain and immune systems, causing chronic illness.
Meanwhile others have contended that Gulf War syndrome is a merger of physical complaints common in both civilian and military groups.
The panel called for "genome-wide association studies," which scan many people looking for gene variations shared by sufferers of a single disease.
Many of the complaints experienced by Gulf War veterans, veterans who arrived in the Gulf War after the hostilities ended, and non-deployed veterans, are also seen in the general population.
"It is beyond dispute, however, that the prevalence of symptoms such as headaches, joint pain and difficulty concentrating is higher in veterans deployed to the Gulf War theater than the others," the report said.
Current evidence is inadequate to determine whether an association exists between Gulf War illness and any specific battlefield exposure or exposures, the panel concluded.
"Veterans who continue to suffer from these discouraging symptoms deserve the very best that modern science and medicine can offer to delineate the true underlying cause of these symptoms in order to speed the development of effective treatments, cures and, it is hoped, preventions," the panel said.
The report was mostly praised by advocates for more attention to Gulf War veterans, and those who believe there is a cause to be found for Gulf War syndrome.
Paul Sullivan, spokesperson for veterans advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense and a Gulf War veteran, said, "Veterans for Common Sense is pleased with the Institute of Medicine conclusion that 250,000 Gulf War veterans remain ill due to their deployment to the war zone in 1990-1991.
"The IOM's scientific review, on the heels of the ground-breaking VA Research Advisory Committee report released in November 2008, places the overwhelming body of scientific research firmly with our Gulf War veterans. The published research repudiates fully the nearly two decades of intense government hostility towards our veterans, research, treatment and benefits."
Sullivan also said that VCS plans to ask the VA to issue new regulations granting access to disability benefits and health care for veterans with multi-symptom illness and other conditions. He said that VCS also hopes that the VA's new rules will be the start of a friendly new chapter where the military and VA "understand the importance of listening to our veterans, the need for early scientific research and our urgent requests for treatment."
Sullivan said that VCS "will be watching VA Secretary (Eric) Shinseki closely to make sure he acts quickly for our veterans. After nearly 20 years, we hope our wait for benefits and health care will soon be over based on new scientific evidence."