Experts are still tracking rare disease in gulf war veterans 5 Aberdeen troops have been treated

October 02, 1992|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND -- Five soldiers from an intelligence unit here were among an unknown number of Persian Gulf war veterans who contracted a rare disease and whom military doctors are still trying to track down 18 months after the desert conflict.

The five soldiers in the Foreign Materiel Intelligence Battalion at the proving ground all have been successfully treated for the disease at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, a doctor there said yesterday.

About 100 soldiers from the unit were deployed to the gulf region starting in the fall of 1990.

The disease, contracted from the bite of a sand fly, is thought to be a new form of leishmaniasis, which occurs in other forms in Central and South America, Mexico and some African nations.

It can cause fatigue, high fever, diarrhea and other ailments, said officials at Walter Reed and the Kirk Army Health Clinic at the proving ground.

Military doctors studying the disease say they do not know the extent of the leishmaniasis infections resulting from service in the gulf region. They add that a more accurate and cost-effective test to determine that -- one that can be given to all 540,000 U.S. military personnel and thousands more U.S. civilians who served the region -- will not be developed for about two years.

"We don't know the magnitude of the problem because we don't have good tests," said Dr. Charles Oster, chief of infectious diseases at Walter Reed, where most of the research and treatment of the leishmaniasis disease is being conducted.

Dr. Oster said widespread testing is necessary because another form of leishmaniasis has been seen in children in Brazil, even though the children were not exhibiting symptoms. He said leishmaniasis organisms can live for years inside the body and may eventually cause acute symptoms if the the human immune system is weakened by cancer chemotherapy, AIDS or some other means.

To date, physicians have relied on patient histories and other diagnostic procedures, in addition to available tests, to determine whether a soldier is suffering from leishmaniasis.

Persistent fatigue and other lingering ailments suffered by some 300 gulf war veterans were the subject of a congressional hearing in Washington last month. Testimony focused on troops' exposure to oil fires in Kuwait, and Department of Defense officials pledged to continue seeking the causes of any other resulting ailments.

The new form of leishmaniasis disease has been confirmed in only a handful of gulf war veterans. Some accounts put the number at about 10, while others say up to 30 people were affected.

Dr. John Blough, deputy commander for clinical services at the Kirk Army Health Clinic, said the five intelligence unit soldiers were the only known cases of leishmaniasis infection detected by proving ground medical personnel. Thousands of soldiers, reservists and civilians came through the proving ground on their return from the gulf region, and many military personnel live in the area.

"We continue to monitor the histories of our patients," Dr. Blough said. He said physicians at Kirk refer all suspected leishmaniasis cases to Walter Reed.

Officials at the proving ground intelligence unit declined to discuss the infections of the five soldiers or allow any of the soldiers to be interviewed. Treatment for systemic forms of leishmaniasis, in which the infecting organism gets into the blood stream, can be difficult, Dr. Oster said. Other, less serious forms of leishmaniasis can cause skin lesions that are easily treated.

In most instances, treatment for the more serious forms involves administering a drug intravenously once a day for 30 days.

Side effects of the drug, sodium stiboglucontate, can include debilitating muscle and bone aches.

"For a lot of reasons, this is not a very good drug," Dr. Oster said. "But it has been used for 50 years successfully."

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