Attrition: Gulf War Syndrome Declared A Real Unknown

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November 25, 2008: Yet another government funded study has concluded that "Gulf War Syndrome" (GWS) is a real illness, affecting about a quarter of the 700,000 U.S. troops who served in the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait. GWS manifest itself with a wide range of symptoms (headaches, flu like pain, inability to think straight, fatigue, rashes, long term diarrhea and digestive and breathing problems. There is no one cause for all of this, which makes GWS a mystery and difficult to treat.

Two years ago, a American National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study of the "Gulf War Syndrome" found that the condition did not exist. What did exist was a large number of illnesses resulting from Americans visiting an area containing many diseases and dangerous conditions that are unfamiliar. Similar situations occurred every time U.S. troops went to exotic locales in the past. It happened during the Spanish-American War (1898) and World War II (for troops in the Pacific, North Africa, the Persian Gulf, India and so on.)

Thirty years ago, the Department of Defense did a medical study of the Persian Gulf area, as part of the effort to form a Rapid Reaction Force for possible intervention in the region. In addition to a large number of known diseases and potentially dangerous bacteria, there appeared to be a lot of unknown ailments out there. Local medical personnel were treating a lot of diseases, unknown outside the Persian Gulf area, with whatever medicines they could get their hands on. Older American military personnel recalled a similar situation when U.S. troops went into North Africa and the Pacific during World War II. While many of these local diseases are of academic interest back in the United States, little is done to develop cures or preventive measures. The treatments developed during wartime are filed away. Many have since been hauled out of storage, as some American troops served in the Persian Gulf during World War II. Even though many Americans have been there since 1991, new ailments are constantly being discovered. The Persian Gulf area is not only rich in oil, but in disease as well.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq exposed more U.S. troops to this unhealthy climate, and generated more complaints about a "Gulf War Syndrome." The problem is that, when medical records are examined, no single disease or condition can be found. Instead there is the same, somewhat unpredictable, array of little know diseases. When several of these hit someone at once, they produce more unfamiliar conditions.

The "Gulf War Syndrome" controversy is driven largely by the media. Unfamiliar with the past history of such diseases, or simply unwilling to pay attention, editors and journalists instead go with unsubstantiated, but headline grabbing, inventions. There is a "Gulf War Syndrome", but it's got more to do with bad journalism, than with medical mysteries.

The U.S. government has spent half a billion dollars trying to find the causes of GWS. There are several potential causes. These include pyridostigmine bromide, which was given to most troops to provide some protection against exposure to nerve gas. Then there were the pesticides that were used around U.S. troops, to deal with the even more dangerous insects, and diseases they carry. There were also the extensive oil field fires the Iraqis set off during the final battle, and some low level exposure to nerve gas by an undetermined number of troops. The problem is, not all those suffering from GWS were exposed too all these potential causes. In many cases, troops were exposed to none of them. So while GWS is now officially recognized as a medical condition, it's still unclear what the cause is. Until that can be found out, a cure cannot be found.

 


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