Cause of Gulf War syndrome may never be found, study says

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010

As many as 250,000 veterans of the Persian Gulf War "have persistent unexplained medical symptoms" whose cause may never be found, although genetic testing and functional brain imaging may eventually shed some light on the problem.

That is one of the conclusions of a new review of research on the constellation of physical complaints originally known as Gulf War syndrome experienced by many soldiers soon after the United States drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in early 1991.

The review, by the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine, found that the only illness clearly caused by the Gulf War is post-traumatic stress disorder. It is present in 2 to 15 percent of Gulf War veterans (depending on how it is diagnosed), and about three times more common in them than in soldiers who served at the same time but were deployed elsewhere.

The 12-member panel of medical experts also found "evidence of an association" between Gulf War service and anxiety disorder, alcohol abuse, dyspepsia, irritable bowl syndrome, and "multisymptom illness" (its term for Gulf War syndrome) although not clearly a causal one.

Among the features of "multisymptom illness" are fatigue, muscle and joint pain, poor sleep, moodiness, lack of concentration, and in some people, skin rash and diarrhea. A survey of 10,000 veterans conducted in 2005 found that 37 percent of those who were in the gulf had the illness, compared with 12 percent deployed elsewhere.

"We concluded that these symptoms are highly prevalent, persistent, and apparently disabling in this veteran population, even two decades after the war," said Stephen L. Hauser, the panel's chairman and a professor of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco. "They defy efforts, thus far, to fully understand their cause."

The 289-page report released Friday was generally 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, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense in Washington, said his organization will ask for disability benefits and free medical care for all veterans suffering from "multisymptom illness."

"This is a huge victory for Gulf War veterans," said Sullivan, 47, a former Army scout who said he has been ill since serving in the gulf.

Many veterans think exposure to pesticides, medicines and environmental toxins damaged soldiers' brain and immune systems, causing chronic illness. Some experts say that the symptoms are the consequence of deployment stress, especially fear of chemical weapons, which Saddam Hussein threatened to use but did not during the U.S. deployment.

Some others, however, argue that "Gulf War syndrome" is an amalgamation of physical complaints that are extremely common in all populations, civilian and military.

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