Persian Gulf War Syndrome study is criticized

January 05, 1995|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- A panel affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences said yesterday that the government's research on the health problems of Persian Gulf War veterans has been badly organized and has failed to determine whether the so-called Gulf War Syndrome really exists.

The panel recommended that Vice President Al Gore's office coordinate a better-organized study of complaints by thousands of veterans that they contracted illnesses in the gulf.

The report was released by a committee of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. The panel's members are experts in epidemiology, environmental medicine and the design of scientific experiments.

In a response, the Persian Gulf Veterans Coordinating Board, which has been overseeing the government's work on the syndrome, agreed that more coordination and better scientific work were necessary.

The three federal departments represented on the board -- Veterans Affairs, Defense, and Health and Human Services -- said they agreed with the panel "and already have initiated or planned a number of research efforts, including large-scale epidemiological and mortality studies, along the lines that IOM recommended."

Since 1993, government agencies led by the VA have kept track of complaints that an unusual, unexplained illness has affected thousands of the veterans. So far, the VA has a registry of 30,000 veterans, and the Department of Defense has a registry of more than 9,000 veterans, all of whom reported unexplained symptoms.

Preliminary reports concluded that most of those examined have ordinary, diagnosable illnesses, while a small portion have symptoms that are unexplained.

The IOM report said the government's efforts had mostly been aimed at finding and caring for those who have identified themselves as possibly suffering from illnesses they contracted in the Persian Gulf.

"Though these efforts may be seen as responsive to community concerns and may also provide care to those who are ill, the methods used to select participants and collect data make these undertakings intrinsically unsuitable for systematic study of the health effects of the gulf war," the panel concluded.

Because those who came forward were self-selected, they cannot represent the collective experience of those who served in the gulf war; and because no control group was used -- for example, a comparison group of those who were in the military at the same time but did not go to the Persian Gulf -- no conclusion can be drawn about what symptoms may have been caused by service in the gulf.

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