Funding Continues for Illness Scientists Dismiss
Sunday, December 3, 2006
Fifteen years after the end of the 1991 war with Iraq, a Texas researcher is in line to get as much as $75 million in federal funding to press his studies of "Gulf War syndrome," even though most other scientists long ago discounted his theories.
Epidemiologist Robert W. Haley has been trying for 10 years to prove that thousands of Persian Gulf War troops were poisoned by a combination of nerve gas, pesticides, insect repellents and a nerve-gas antidote. With the help of $16 million in past funding obtained by his backers in Congress and the Pentagon, Haley has argued that his "toxicity hypothesis" is the best explanation for the constellation of physical complaints that many veterans reported after returning from the Gulf.
Haley and his supporters, who also include a powerful cluster of veterans and government advisers, are undeterred by the scientific consensus against him.
As recently as September, a panel of the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine reached the same conclusion that half a dozen other expert groups had: Gulf War syndrome does not exist. After reviewing 850 studies -- essentially all the scientific literature on the topic -- the 13 scientists wrote that "the nature of the symptoms suffered by many Gulf War veterans does not point to an obvious diagnosis, etiology [cause], or standard treatment."
"Gulf War syndrome" became a catchall name for a spectrum of non-life-threatening complaints that up to 30 percent of the conflict's veterans say they have experienced at some point since the end of the war in 1991. The most commonly cited symptoms are fatigue, memory loss, poor sleep, mood changes, digestive troubles and rashes.
The ground war lasted four days and resulted in 147 battlefield deaths, but almost 199,000 of the 698,000 people who were deployed have since qualified for some degree of service-related disability. Of those, 3,317 people are disabled by "undiagnosed conditions."
From 1994 through 2003, the departments of defense, veterans affairs, and health and human services sponsored 256 studies of Gulf War syndrome, at a total cost of $316 million.
Scientists Cry Foul
The size, timing and purpose of the latest appropriation has elicited muffled outrage among scientists who say there is little more to gain from pursuing Haley's ideas.
"This is a tremendously egregious misuse of government funding," said Gregory C. Gray, who headed the Navy's Gulf War illness research center in San Diego before retiring in 2001. He now directs the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa's College of Public Health.
"After hundreds of millions of dollars and a decade or better of research, we really haven't made any significant findings," said John R. Feussner, who was VA's chief research officer from 1996 to 2002 and is now chairman of medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. "What is the chance we will find something now? Not as high as zero."
At VA, people will not talk on the record about the appropriateness of Haley's grants -- almost all awarded outside the usual competitive routes.
"This is a very sensitive topic around here right now, in part because this might be seen as an apparent shift in how VA selects and funds research," said one official, speaking anonymously so as not to offend members of Congress. A former VA official, also unwilling to be quoted by name, was more straightforward: "Everyone is dismayed."