There is no such thing as Gulf War syndrome, even though U.S. and foreign veterans of the war report more symptoms of illness than do soldiers who didn't serve there, a federally funded study concludes.
U.S. and foreign veterans of the Gulf War do suffer from an array of very real problems, according to the Veterans Administration-sponsored report released Tuesday.
Yet there is no one complex of symptoms to suggest those veterans — nearly 30 percent of all those who served — suffered or still suffer from a single identifiable syndrome.
"There's no unique pattern of symptoms. Every pattern identified in Gulf War veterans also seems to exist in other veterans, though it is important to note the symptom rate is higher, and it is a serious issue," said Dr. Lynn Goldman, of Johns Hopkins University, who headed the Institute of Medicine committee that prepared the report.
The VA contracted with the institute, part of the National Academy of Sciences, to review scientific studies and probe the issue at the direction of Congress.
Tuesday's report is the latest in the important series, which the VA will rely on to determine whether Gulf War veterans are eligible for special disability benefits if they are found to suffer from illnesses that can be linked to their service.
Veterans can now claim those benefits only by making an undiagnosed illness claim, said Steve Robinson, a Gulf War Army veteran and government relations director for Veterans for America.
"They keep saying it over and over, every year. We know that — we know that there is no single thing that made veterans sick. We know this thing is likely a combination of various exposures," Robinson said in pushing for new studies he hopes will find what ails tens of thousands of his fellow vets.
A member of the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, also chartered by Congress, called the report the "first step" in cataloging the studies done on veterans of the conflict.
"But the most prevalent problems in Gulf War veterans are the multisymptom illness/Gulf War syndrome-type problems that still affect a sizable proportion of those who served in the war. I am disappointed that the IOM report does little to analyze what these studies collectively tell us about the nature and causes of these conditions," said Lea Steele, a Kansas State University epidemiologist who is the committee's scientific director.
Soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf following the Iraqi invasion of neighboring Kuwait in August 1990 have reported symptoms that include fatigue, memory loss, muscle and joint pain, rashes and difficulty sleeping. But not all suffer from the same array of symptoms, which has complicated efforts to pinpoint their cause, according to the report.
Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman Phil Budahn said the VA would not comment until it had a chance to study the report. The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States also was reviewing the study.
Nearly 700,000 U.S. soldiers, along with troops from 34 other countries, took part in the Gulf War. Once in the region, those soldiers were exposed to a wide array of toxins and other potential health hazards, including smoke from hundreds of oil well fires, pesticides, depleted uranium ammunition and possibly the nerve agent sarin, released during the demolition of a munitions dump.
Inadequate screening of soldiers before deployment in the Gulf War, coupled with a lack of environmental monitoring during the conflict, have hindered efforts to determine whether exposure to those contaminants is linked to any illness, the report also notes.
For years, the government denied the mysterious illnesses were linked to the war. It now acknowledges that at least some were due to wartime service. The government is no longer pointing to stress as the likely reason, as some federally funded studies had suggested.
The new report did find evidence of an elevated risk of the rare nerve disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig's disease, among Gulf War veterans. They also face an increased risk of anxiety disorders, depression and substance abuse, it said.