Gulf War Illness and the Health of Gulf War Veterans: Scientific Findings and Recommendations

A major report on Gulf War Illness written by the VA Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses (RAC) was made public on November 17. This is the most important document yet produced on Gulf War illnesses. About 1800 references are cited. The report gets it right about how many have developed the syndrome (25% of those deployed during 1990-1991) and the medical conditions they are experiencing. It emphasizes the desperate need for effective treatments to be developed and used in this population. The report also discusses a number of potential causes of the syndrome, and rules them in or out as significant factors in the report’s executive summary.

This report expands on many issues discussed in my September 2007 Senate Veterans Affairs testimony on Gulf War Syndrome. I discussed a greater number of soldiers’ exposures (for several of which only limited evidence is available) that were not considered in this report. Overall, my testimony and this report agree about most things.

However, I weighed the existing evidence differently than the RAC did. Yet we both took a weight of evidence approach. How does one weigh evidence? Imho, it always involves subjectivity.

I used an approach which gave more weight to researchers whose work appeared to be of higher quality, and to evidence derived from 3 or more different groups that used different study methods but yielded the same conclusion. I gave less weight to researchers whose work received substantial criticism, was not internally consistent, or used weak methodologies. I disregarded studies whose results conflicted with those of multiple other researchers. I factored in less tangible factors as well: how politicized choices led to certain research being performed (such as a large body of research favoring psychiatric causes, which was also dismissed by the RAC report) while other valid research was omitted or buried. With respect to anthrax vaccine, in the face of limited and contradictory data we drew very different conclusions.

From the Executive Summary: “About 150,000 Gulf War veterans are believed to have received one or two anthrax shots, most commonly troops who were in fixed support locations during the war. Although recent studies have demonstrated that the anthrax vaccine is highly reactogenic, there is no clear evidence from Gulf War studies that links the anthrax vaccine to Gulf War illness. Taken together, limited findings from Gulf War epidemiologic studies, the preferred administration to troops in support locations, and the lack of widespread multisymptom illness resulting from current deployments, combine to indicate that the anthrax vaccine is not a likely cause of Gulf War illness for most ill veterans. However, limited evidence from both animal research and Gulf War epidemiologic studies indicates that an association between Gulf War illness and receipt of a large number of vaccines cannot be ruled out.

…There is little reliable information from Gulf War studies concerning an association of DU or anthrax vaccine to Gulf War illness. The prominence of both exposures in more recent deployments, in the absence of widespread unexplained illness, suggests these exposures are unlikely to have been major causes of Gulf War illness for the majority of affected veterans.”

Yet the RAC cited another study of self-reports indicating that approximately 300,000 GW veterans received anthrax vaccine. According to self-reports, the vaccine correlates highly with GWS. According to DoD, most of the self-reports are wrong. But other studies indicate that self-reports in GW veterans are highly reliable. Four studies (from 4 different research groups, and presented by the RAC at meetings I attended) show that anthrax vaccine is correlated with GWS, with a relative risk of 1.5-1.92. A Senate report of 1995 noted that relatively more veterans in support locations had GWS, a reason to suspect anthrax vaccine. Which report is correct on this point?

Why are there limited findings from epidemiologic studies? The RAND report on vaccines, first completed in 1999 and later revised, is the only one of eight RAND reports on Gulf War exposures that has never been released. The two studies billed as investigating the long-term effects of the vaccine (the Tripler and CDC studies) have so far not released the long-term safety data they collected. The Defense Medical Surveillance System, according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) the most important database for studying anthrax vaccine safety, has been kept under wraps since 2001, when it had to be shared with the IOM. Why have eight expert groups during the last ten years called for long-term safety studies, but none are available? The reason is political.

Due to lack of hard data, the report ignores the many soldiers since the Gulf War who received anthrax vaccine and developed an identical illness as GWS. It also seems to have ignored limited data that current OIF/OEF veterans are developing undiagnosed illnesses at a rate of 15-40%. (According to the Veterans Health Administration Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards, August 2008, of those 347,750 veterans of the Global War on Terror who have sought care in the VA system, 39.7% have demonstrated “Symptoms, signs and ill defined conditions” while 42.5% have mental disorders, 34.9% have diseases of the nervous system/sense organs, 31.8% have digestive disorders and 47.6% have diseases of musculoskeletal system/connective system. This is certainly a red flag that GWS could be affecting a large number of recent veterans, yet the RAC is unaware that many new veterans may suffer similar illnesses as those of the first Gulf War. “Newly released documents reveal that more than 150,000 soldiers who left the military after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have been at least partly disabled as a result of service–this translates to one in four veterans.”

These veterans have been exposed to vaccines and depleted uranium, but much less routinely to pyridostigmine, and not to sarin. If new veterans are, in fact, developing GWS-like illnesses, it would cast doubt on the RAC’s conclusions.)

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