Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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.

Cited story.


  1. #1 howard
    December 3, 2006

    One issue often not addressed in the gulf war syndrome is money.
    If you are a veteran, and can get labeled with a service related disability, you can get a tax-free check every month for the rest of your life. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. I am a veteran, and have 10% disability related to some vertigo and hearing loss. I get a check every month for $112. Let’s say you are a gulf war veteran, and you have some non-specific complaints like headache or muscle ache or concentration problems. By themselves, these complaints are nothing. BUT… call it gulf war syndrome, and now you have a monthly check for life! The public at large is not aware of this issue, but believe me, the veterans are very aware of the potential to get some cash.
    Let me be clear. I’m not saying gulf war syndrome doesn’t exist, but there may be some secondary gain out there pumping up the numbers.

  2. #2 certhia
    December 3, 2006

    Yeah, it’s always tough to sort science statistics from anecdote. That said, I’ve read that about 1/3 of Gulf War 1 vets are dealing with immune system issues and/or cancer. One of these is my sister, who now has a 100% disability rating. She was in the “plume” of burning oil wells (& God knows what else) in Kuwait. She went along the uranium-laced “highway of death.” She was bitten by desert bugs which gave her leishmaniasis. Who knows how all these pathogens interact? What kind of study would you design to factor in all these variables?
    My sister gets a small monthly check, yes. And I watch her constant struggles with infections, preventive & curative meds, and awful physical symptoms, plus her frustration at what she can no longer do as a result. Some of these are things that are so simple–like having her hands work well enough to twist the lid off a jar…

    Howard’s idea that these vets are “pumping up the numbers” is so, so insulting and degrading to a group of brave people who go on suffering daily in ways I hope Howard never does.

  3. #3 Diane in Ohio
    December 3, 2006

    Some much younger friends of mine have just returned from Iraq with little bumps on their hands,wrists and lower arms and admitted their joints were aching now & then. I ask if they got that “over there”. They replied and believed if may be from the 8 shot series for anthrax they were given. Very scary!

  4. #4 revere
    December 3, 2006

    Grrl: I’m not sure exactly where you stand on this, but as an epidemiologist who has published a number of papers on GWI and seen lots of cases, I know very few scientists who work in this area who deny that a significant number of Desert Storm/Shield participants came back sick. When you look at the suite of exposures they suffered you tend to ask yourself not why some are sick but why they aren’t all sick.

    The dispute now centers on whether it is one illness or a distinctive syndrome or a congeries of them. Haley is a participant in this debate and has made himself unpopular by going around the system and getting his grants funded by earmarks. I share the general disgruntlement with his methods and his self promotion. I’m also somewhat dubious of some of his science. But all that’s not at issue. No one now disputes that there is a significantly higher rate of multisystem complaints in GW vets compared to other vets or those deployed elsewhere, or, for that matter, compared to Iraqi War Vets. We are still trying to find (all) the reasons. Interest is tending to focus on anti-cholinesterase agents, either the “nerve gas pills” taken in an uncontrolled way in the face of an attack or exposures to nerve agents themselves, as when a large group was exposed around Khamisiyeh when nerve gas ordnance was destroyed by blowing it up (this sounds stupid, but I gather they didn’t realize it was there).

    I am no longer in the Gulf War epi area but I keep in touch with the main researchers and follow what is going on out of the corner of my eye.

  5. #5 Venus Hammack
    December 4, 2006

    I’m not going to sick silently while the last independent not government scientist gets attack for trying go do something to help the 130,000 GW vets who are sick enough to granted medical compensation from VA gets attacked.

    I beleive that
    [a] true there is no SINGLE gulf war syndrome
    [b] there IS post deployment chronic multisymptom
    illness that the above number is suffering with.
    [c] due exposures to military vaccines and
    military radiological, biologic, and chemical
    weaponized materialse have diminished and shorted
    the Quality of our Lives.
    Therefore we demand that this and other studies
    continue to answer our adverse health conditions.

    GI are NOT expendable.
    DOD and VA Directors Don’t Lie, Just Omit the Data
    War is a Rackett and Corporations always profit

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