Fifteen years after most scientists have discounted the validity of “Gulf War Syndrome”, which was first observed after the Iraq-US war I that ended in 1991, Epidemiologist Robert W. Haley has been trying to prove that thousands of troops were poisoned by a combination of nerve gas, pesticides, insect repellents and a nerve-gas antidote.
But the scientific concensus is that this syndrome is a myth.
“After hundreds of millions of dollars and a decade or better of research, we really haven’t made any significant findings,” said John R. Feussner, who was VA’s chief research officer from 1996 to 2002 and is now chairman of medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. “What is the chance we will find something now? Not as high as zero.”
As recently as September, a panel of the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine reached the same conclusion that half a dozen other expert groups had: Gulf War syndrome does not exist.
Yet, despite the evidence, funds are still being awarded for research into Gulf War Syndrome.
“This is a very sensitive topic around here right now, in part because this might be seen as an apparent shift in how VA selects and funds research,” said one official, speaking anonymously so as not to offend members of Congress. A former VA official, also unwilling to be quoted by name, was more straightforward: “Everyone is dismayed…”
The size, timing and purpose of the latest appropriation has elicited muffled outrage among scientists who say there is little more to gain from pursuing Haley’s ideas.
However, other experts think the syndrome is rooted more in medicine, psychology and culture than in toxicology.
They have concluded that it is the product of a medley of factors, including the stress of the war and the fear that Saddam Hussein might use chemical or biological weapons. For some people — particularly reservists, in whom the symptoms are more common — it may be a physical expression of the disruption that deployment caused in their lives. Some of the physical complaints may simply be the ordinary ups and downs of people’s health, magnified by public and media attention. Gulf War syndrome may also be the military manifestation of something long seen in civilian medicine: symptoms whose cause is never found despite extensive testing and diagnostic studies.
Further, resentment in the scientific and medical research communities is growing.
“Basically, Haley stiffed the government,” Rostker said recently. He refused to give Haley more money, and Hutchison began inserting budget earmarks to fund Haley’s work.
Pentagon and VA officials still say the crucial question that needs answering is whether Haley’s syndromes can be found in a larger group of veterans.
To do this, the government will spend more than $10 million to ask a random sample of 10,000 veterans about symptoms, and to study the brains of several hundred who are clearly ill, using MRI scanners.