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Gulf War Illnesses `Real' - By Thomas D. Williams
This story Web-posted from Newswise on November 30, 1999; 11:30 a.m.
Brain scans of some Persian Gulf War soldiers show damage by exposure to wartime chemicals, a new Pentagon-sponsored study reveals. The study, combined with earlier related studies, contradict claims by the Pentagon since the Gulf War that low-level chemical agents were not common on battlefields, or, if they were evident, that they could not have been seriously harmful to veterans. Many veterans have complained of persistent illnesses in the years since the war. ``It basically penetrates the denials that they were not sick from Gulf War-related exposures,'' said Dr. James L. Fleckenstein, a professor of radiology at the University of Texas and one of those responsible for the study. ``Now we can move from a point when Gulf War syndrome was debated, to a time when Gulf War disease can be diagnosed, and hopefully an effective treatment can be developed.''
``It confirms what we have known for a long time, that there were serious exposures to chemical warfare out there in the battlefields,'' said former U.S. Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr., a Michigan Democrat. As chairman of a Senate committee, it was Riegle who first gathered evidence in 1993 and 1994 that Gulf War soldiers had been exposed to chemical warfare. The evidence revealed in part that hundreds of thousands of chemical alarms had sounded after winds carried chemicals over battlefields during allied bombings of Iraqi chemical weapons plants.
More than 100,000 of the 690,000 Gulf War veterans who served at the height of the 1990-91 war, have reported suffering from symptoms such as memory loss, loss of balance, sleep disorders, depression, exhaustion, joint pain, diarrhea and problems with concentration. These symptoms, the studies say, are consistent with veterans' exposures to chemicals, including chemical warfare, anti-chemical warfare drugs and pesticides. A group of Navy Seabees as well as some Army soldiers took special magnetic resonance brain scans, which showed they have 10 percent to 25 percent lower levels of a certain chemical in the brain stem and gray matter than healthy soldier-subjects, the new study shows. The brain stem controls some of the body's reflexes, and the gray matter controls movement, memory and emotion. A total of 46 service people were studied. The collection of data took three to four months, and was completed in September 1998.
``The Department of Defense is always interested in high quality research that provides us information concerning the complex set of health problems being encountered by our Persian Gulf War veterans,'' said James Turner, a Pentagon spokesman. ``We look forward to seeing the work in a peer-reviewed scientific journal of stature. Until then, it would be inappropriate for the [department] to comment on an unreleased research paper we haven't seen.'' He said the defense department is continuing to care for active duty Gulf War veterans experiencing problems they believe are associated with their service during the war. So far, he said, the department has provided special physical exams for 38,135 veterans and some family members. Last month, a report from the Rand Corp., also funded by the Pentagon, revealed that the use of the drug pyridostigmine bromide (PB) by 250,000 soldiers during the Persian Gulf War ``cannot be ruled out'' as a cause of lingering illnesses in some veterans.
The PB pills were supplied to service members by the military despite the experimental nature of their use, and despite the fact that they were effective only against soman gas and dangerous to use in the face of potential sarin gas, accessible to the Iraqis. Fleckenstein and Dr. Robert Haley, an associate professor of internal medicine and chief of epidemiology, both working at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas were in charge of the brain scan study. It is a significant follow up to earlier studies by Haley of Gulf War veterans, and was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and the [Ross] Perot Foundation of Dallas. Haley said the findings were significant not only because they show the veterans were telling the truth about their exposure to chemical warfare, but because their brain injuries may be treatable. He said brain cells are not missing in the patients examined, just damaged or atrophied. Although there is no known treatment as of yet, Haley added, there is medical research underway to regenerate nerve cells. ``Some of these [veterans] are profoundly disabled, [some] barely able to drive to the store,'' Fleckenstein said. ``The findings suggest a substantial loss of brain cells in the areas that could explain the veterans'''symptoms.'' The results were released in a press conference Tuesday at the 85th Scientific Assembly of the Radiological Society of North America. Twenty-two sick Gulf War U.S. Navy veterans studied had lower levels of certain chemicals in the brain than was detected in 18 healthy veterans. That study was consistent with a second one of six Gulf War Army veterans.The doctors doing the study were not told which veterans were healthy or which had symptoms of illness, Haley and Fleckenstein said.
In earlier research, Haley said, he and Texas research doctors identified three primary symptoms indicating brain impairment in sick Gulf War veterans. Their disabilities were consistent with the soldiers' exposures to chemical nerve gas, side effects from PB tablets and insect repellants, and pesticides used in soldiers' flea collars, the earlier study said. Critics of the Pentagon quickly reacted to the new study.``Why is Dr. Haley able to figure this out when our government friends and their scientists were unable to do so for so long?'' said retired U.S. Army Maj. Barry Kapplan of Union. Kapplan, a Gulf War veteran, spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to cure a variety of illnesses he and family members contracted and which he believes were related to his war exposures.
``It's nine years late and a whole bunch of medical bills short,'' he said. ``What is this going to do for the veterans now? It's so long after the Gulf War, it's hard to believe veterans can still be treated.'' Riegle, the former senator who now works for an international public relations firm whose work includes health-related issues, called the new study a ``chilling and persuasive finding.'' ``It demonstrates again that the Pentagon has worked hardest not to get to the full truth. And, we have all those walking wounded who need medical help and compensation, and they are not getting it,'' Riegle said. ``These findings lend new urgency to bring this issue back to the forefront. I think the president has an obligation to act as the commander in chief, if the Pentagon doesn't do so.''
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