Gulf War syndrome
Gulf War syndrome describes a wide spectrum of illnesses and symptoms ranging from asthma to sexual dysfunction that have been reported by U.S. and U.S. allied soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf War in 1990–91.
Between 1994 and 1999, 145 federally funded research studies on Gulf War-related illnesses were undertaken at a cost of over $133 million. Despite this investment, and the data collected from over 100,000 veterans who have registered with the Department of Defense and/or Veterans Administration as having Gulf War-related illnesses, there is still much debate over the cause and nature of Gulf War Syndrome. Veterans who have the illness experience a wide range of debilitating symptoms that elude a single diagnosis. They are tired, have trouble breathing, have headaches, sleep poorly, are forgetful, and cannot concentrate. Similar experiences among Gulf War veterans have been reported in the United Kingdom and Canada.
Causes & symptoms
There is much current debate over a possible causative agent for Gulf War Syndrome other than the stress of warfare. Intensive efforts by the Veterans Administration and other public and private institutions have investigated a wide range of potential factors. These include chemical and biological weapons, the immunizations and preventive treatments used to protect against them, smoke from oil well fires, exposure to depleted uranium, and diseases endemic to the Arabian peninsula. So far investigators have not approached a consensus. They even disagree on the likelihood that a specific agent is responsible, as a combination of these risk factors may have negative health consequences. There is, however, a likelihood that sarin and/or cyclosarin (nerve gases) were released during the destruction of Iraqi munitions at Kharnisiyah, Iraq, and that these chemicals might be linked to the syndrome.
In October 1999, the U.S. Pentagon released a report that hypothesized that an experimental drug known as pyriostigmine bromide, or PB, might be linked to the physical symptoms manifested in Gulf War Syndrome. The experimental drug was given to U.S. and Canadian troops during the war to protect soldiers against the effects of the chemical nerve agent soman.
Statistical analysis shows that the following symptoms are about twice as likely to appear in Gulf War veterans than in their non-combat peers: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic fatigue, cognitive dysfunction (diminished ability to calculate, order thoughts, evaluate, learn, and remember), bronchitis, asthma, fibromyalgia, alcohol abuse, anxiety, and sexual dysfunction. PTSD is the modern equivalent of shell shock (term used in World War I) and battle fatigue (World War II). It encompasses most of the psychological symptoms of war veterans, not excluding nightmares, panic at sudden loud noises, and inability to adjust to peacetime living.
Chronic fatigue syndrome has a specific medical definition that attempts to separate common fatigue from a more disabling illness in hope of finding a specific cause. Fibromyalgia is another newly defined syndrome, and as such it has arbitrarily rigid defining characteristics. These include a certain duration of illness, a specified minimum number of joint and muscle pains located in designated areas of the body, sleep disturbances, and other associated symptoms and signs. One study comparing unexplained symptoms in Gulf War veterans with symptoms in control subjects found that over half the veterans with unexplained muscle pain met the criteria for fibromyalgia, and a significant portion of the veterans with unexplained fatigue met the criteria for chronic fatigue syndrome.
As of 2001, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, has been added to the list of illnesses that occur more frequently in veterans of the Gulf War. Gulf War veterans are twice as likely as other veterans to develop ALS, which is a disease that causes wasting of muscle tissue and kills its victims within three to five years. About 40 Gulf War veterans have been diagnosed with ALS; most have already died.
Researchers have identified three distinct syndromes and several variations in Gulf War veterans. Type one patients suffer primarily from impaired thinking. Type two patients have a greater degree of confusion and ataxia (loss of coordination). Type three patients are the most affected by joint pains, muscle pains, and extremity paresthesias (unnatural sensations like burning or tingling in the arms and legs). In each of the three types, researchers found different but measurable impairments on objective testing of neurological function. The functioning of the nervous system is much more complex and subtle than other body systems. Measuring it requires an equally complex effort. The tests used in this study carefully measured and compared localized nerve performance at several different tasks against the same values in normal subjects. Brain wave response to noise and touch, eye muscle response to spinning, and caloric testing (stimulation of the ear with warm and cold water, which causes vertigo) were clearly different between the normal and the test subjects. The researchers concluded that there was "a generalized injury to the nervous system." Another research group concluded their study by stating that there was "a spectrum of neurologic injury involving the central, peripheral, and autonomic nervous systems."
Until there is a clear definition of the disease, diagnosis is primarily an exercise in identifying those Gulf War veterans who have an undefined illness in an effort to learn more about them and their symptoms. Both the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Veterans Administration (VA) currently have programs devoted to this problem. Both the DoD's Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program and the VA's Persian Gulf Registry provide free, in-depth medical evaluations to Gulf War veterans and their families. In addition to providing individual veterans with critical medical care, these organizations use the cumulative data from these programs to advance research on Gulf War syndrome itself.
Specific treatment awaits specific diagnosis and identification of a causative agent. Meanwhile, veterans can benefit from the wide variety of supportive and nonspecific approaches to this and similar problems. The key to working successfully with people living their lives with Gulf War syndrome is long-term, ongoing care, whether it be hypnotherapy, acupuncture, homeopathy, nutrition, vitamin/mineral therapy, or bodywork.
There are many drugs available for symptomatic relief. Psychological counseling by those specializing in this area can be immensely beneficial, even life-saving, for those contemplating suicide. Veterans' benefits are available for those who are impaired by their symptoms.
The outlook for war veterans is unclear, but will hopefully improve as more information is gathered about the illness. Gradual return to a functioning life may take many years of work and much help. However, even in the absence of an identifiable and curable cause, recovery is possible.
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Knoke, James D., and Gregory C. Gray. "Hospitalizations for Unexplained Illnesses Among U.S. Veterans of the Persian Gulf War." Emerging Infectious Diseases 4 (April-June 1998): 211–219.
McDiarmid, Melissa, et al. "Surveillance of Depleted Uranium-Exposed Gulf War Veterans: Health Effects Observed in an Enlarged 'Friendly Fire' Cohort." Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 43 (December 2001): 991–1000.
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Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses. 5111 Leesburg Pike, Suite 901, Falls Church, Virginia, 22041. 703-578-8518. firstname.lastname@example.org. <http://www.gulflink.osd.mil>.
The American Legion. Gulf War Veteran Issues. <http://www.legion.org/veterans/vt_gulfvet_info.htm>.
Veterans Administration. Persian Gulf Medical Information Helpline. 400 South 18th Street, St. Louis, Missouri 63103-2271. (800) 749-8387.
Veterans Administration. Persian Gulf Registry. 800-PGW-VETS (800-749-8387). <http://www.va.gov>.
Gulf War News. Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, 5113 Leesburg Pike, Suite 901, Falls Church, Virginia 22041. (703) 578-8518. email@example.com.
Joseph, Stephen C., and the Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program (CCEP). "A Comprehensive Clinical Evalutation of 20,000 Persian Gulf War Vetrans." Military Medicine 162 (March 1997). [cited October 2002]. <http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/foi/clinic.pdf>.
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