High stress of gulf war may be causing illnesses

April 30, 1994|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Sun Staff Writer

BETHESDA -- A panel of scientists said yesterday that high stress levels among soldiers in Operation Desert Storm may have triggered the illnesses reported by thousands of veterans in the three years since the war ended.

The 12-member panel, convened by the National Institutes of Health, said psychological factors such as the widespread fear that Iraq would unleash chemical and biological weapons may have made allied soldiers unusually vulnerable to pollution and infectious disease.

But the scientists said they lacked enough evidence to define a "Gulf War Syndrome," to pinpoint what made so many soldiers sick or to explain why the illnesses have persisted so long after the war.

Efforts to solve the mystery have been hampered by a serious lack of data, including measurements of environmental pollution or conclusive information about whether the Iraqis made good on their threat to use chemical or biological weapons, the panel said.

Nonetheless, the scientists strongly acknowledged that Desert Storm -- while producing relatively few battlefield injuries among U.S. troops -- seems to have made many soldiers sick with symptoms that include chronic fatigue, dizziness, memory loss, joint pain, headaches, skin rash and gastrointestinal and respiratory problems.

"We have developed a feeling for the pain and continued suffering and loss of expected quality of life by the veterans of the gulf war," Dr. Gareth M. Green, professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health, said during a news briefing.

"There is a clear need for continuing and compassionate care for these veterans as well as concerted research efforts to understand the underlying cause of these illnesses."

While hospitals operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs have treated many of the sick veterans, he said, others complain that they have been denied treatment.

About 20,000 veterans have reported various illnesses to veterans hospitals, but the panel agreed that there is no way to estimate the true extent of the problem.

The panel recommended a survey of Persian Gulf veterans to collect information on their personal and family health as well as the precise locations and dates of their service.

In addition, it recommended that the federal government sponsor studies of veterans who are ill to define one or more illnesses associated with service in the gulf.

Dr. Eula Bingham, professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati, said stressful conditions may have made soldiers unusually sensitive to the pollution of oil fires, fuel exhaust and pesticides that were sprayed liberally around the desert encampments.

"People had gone for days wearing clothing that had been

saturated" with petroleum products, she said.

But she said the gulf war presented scientists with a baffling problem.

While environmental scientists have studied the effects of individual chemicals and parasites on human health, they know little about the effects of multiple exposures.

Additionally, the soldiers were exposed to different combinations pollutants and have reported different combinations of symptoms, she said.

Dr. Green, the panel chairman, said the military did not begin monitoring air quality until May 1991 -- missing the worst pollution from the oil-well fires set by the Iraqis as they fled Kuwait. In future campaigns, the military should do a better job monitoring pollution from pesticides, fuel oils and kerosene heaters, he said.

The military has diagnosed 31 cases of leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease transmitted by sand flies.

The parasite common to that part of the world usually causes skin rashes. But some of the cases were a variety seen in Brazil that attacks multiple organs and the bone marrow -- producing malaise, low-grade fever, forgetfulness and intestinal problems.

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