Drug may have caused illnesses in gulf war troops, report says

Medicine given to protect against nerve gas use

October 19, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- A scientific survey underwritten by the Pentagon has concluded that an experimental drug given to American troops during the Persian Gulf war to protect against a nerve gas may have been responsible for the chronic illnesses afflicting tens of thousands of veterans.

The report, to be released at a news conference today, is the first commissioned by the Pentagon to identify a possible cause for the illnesses, which have collectively come to be known as gulf war syndrome. It sharply contradicts two earlier government studies -- by a presidential commission and by the Institute of Medicine -- that ruled out the drug as a cause.

The drug, pyridostigmine bromide, PB, was distributed to 250,000 to 300,000 of the nearly 700,000 American soldiers sent to the Persian Gulf in 1990 and 1991 as a "pretreatment" for potential Iraqi attacks with the nerve agent soman. Though the drug has been used since 1955 to treat a rare neurological disorder, its use as an antidote to soman is regarded as experimental.

More than 100,000 veterans have reported experiencing symptoms attributed to gulf war syndrome, including chronic fatigue, muscle pain, memory loss and sleep disorders. But because of the Pentagon's admittedly shoddy record-keeping during the war, it may be impossible to know how many of those took the drug and in what quantities.

The report represented a breakthrough after years in which the Pentagon has systematically discounted possible explanations for the ailments, from stress to exposure to oil-well fires and depleted uranium used in American bombs.

Wary of the reaction of veterans' groups and their supporters in Congress, Pentagon officials played down the findings of the survey, which was conducted over the past two years by the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization funded by the Defense Department.

"This is not a Eureka," said Dr. Sue Bailey, who is the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

Bailey and other officials said they accepted the report's findings but added that more studies were needed before a direct scientific link could be established. They also said the Pentagon would continue to keep PB in its arsenal of vaccinations and antidotes for troops who might face attacks with chemical and biological weapons, even though the survey's conclusions also raise questions about the drug's effectiveness against soman.

The report, written by Dr. Beatrice Alexandra Golomb, is a 385-page review and is based on the findings of scores of medical studies on PB and its effects.

The report also said that research has shown that reactions to the drug depend on different factors, including stress, physiological differences and exposure to other agents.

Pub Date: 10/19/99

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