The cause of Gulf War illness is still a mystery but focusing on treatments and interventions might help the veterans of Operation Desert Storm as well as the troops of the future, according to an Institute of Medicine committee report led by University of Rochester Medical Center Professor Deborah Cory-Slechta.
In 1990 and ’91 nearly 700,000 U.S. troops deployed to the Persian Gulf region for a short, intense war. Few injuries or deaths occurred, but troops were exposed to chemical and biological weapons, vaccines, oil-fires, air pollution, bomb blasts, pesticides, extreme desert temperatures, and constant false alarms and fear of nerve-gas attacks.
After the war ended a high number of the veterans reported debilitating fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headaches, and cognitive problems. This became known as “Gulf War illness.” During the past 25 years, 10 different committees of the nation’s top medical experts have searched for evidence that would better define Gulf War illness and possible treatments. The latest committee, headed by Cory-Slechta, concluded that no single mechanism can explain the multitude of symptoms seen in Gulf War illness—and that it’s unlikely a cause will ever be identified.
However, the report stated that Gulf War veterans do have a higher risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic fatigue syndrome, some gastrointestinal conditions, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse compared to non-deployed counterparts. Limited evidence also suggests a possible association with war service and ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The committee found that it won’t be possible to connect the troops’ war exposures with other illnesses they have reported, such as cancer and Parkinson’s disease, because there are no objective measures of what the deployed veterans were exposed to either internally or through the environment.
For this reason, the latest report released Feb. 11, 2016, recommended that treatments for veterans who suffer from the reliably established symptoms of Gulf War illness should take precedence.
Unfortunately, Cory-Slechta said, the military does not appear to have collected or kept records of troop exposures to chemicals and did not monitor the health of Gulf War veterans until they began to report serious illnesses in 1998. At that point, Congress passed laws and authorized funding, directing the National Academy of Sciences, which oversees the Institute of Medicine, to review the scientific literature for associations between war exposures and various illnesses. But without objective measures of such exposures, it’s been impossible to show cause-and-effect relationships between the two.
“We will never have exposure data from this war, other than what the vets have told us themselves. They are an incredible, dedicated, and proactive group and we are grateful for their service and their input to our committee for this report,” said Cory-Slechta, Ph.D., acting chair of the URMC Department of Environmental Medicine. “If these types of conditions are expected in future military conflicts, it is my belief that we need to do a much better job of collecting data on such exposure before, during and after the conflict. The possibilities are far more accessible with all of the advancements in GPS tracking and in the development of personal bio-monitoring devices. We hope this report also opens the door to preventing health problems from future wars.”
Finally, the report said, more research is needed to find therapies that recognize the intricate and complex brain-body relationship affecting health of the brain, gut, heart, immune system, bones, and skin, for example, which can sometimes cause unexplained symptoms. The report emphasized that Gulf War illness is not a psychosomatic disorder but that any treatments and future studies should nevertheless recognize the involvement of multiple organ systems.
Learn more by viewing the full report: Committee on Gulf War and Health, Volume 10: Update of Health Effects of Serving in the Gulf War. It was authored by a 16-member panel and independently peer-reviewed.
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