The physical complaints known as Gulf War Syndrome are frequently reported by soldiers who never went to Iraq, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, as well as by those who did, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. That means the fatigue, memory problems and musculoskeletal pain are not likely to be explained by toxic exposures, exotic infections of other risk factors unique to the war, according to the team of epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who conducted the study.
Preliminary results from the study involving more than 4,000 veterans were reported in The CFIDS Chronicle (Summer 1997, page 19), with the comment from Dr. William Reeves, one of the team members, that GWS “looks very much like chronic fatigue syndrome.” The researchers defined GWS through a statistical analysis of the complaints reported by veterans as a “chronic multisystem illness” with fatigue, mood, cognition, pain and insomnia problems very similar to the case definition for CFIDS.
The study found that 45 percent of Gulf War veterans had chronic physical complaints, with about 6% reporting severe illness. However, about 15% of the personnel surveyed who had never been to the Gulf had the same problems, with about 1% reporting severe illness. Those reporting illness showed nothing unusual on physical examination or laboratory testing, and they had nothing notable in common, such as military occupation, exposure to combat or where they were stationed.
Dr. Keiji Fukuda, who led the study, told the Navy Times that researchers would have to look at other variables. “Stress comes to mind as something that could plausibly have had more of an effect on people who went to the Gulf than people who did not, but which could be present in both groups,” Fukuda said. However, he noted that the study did not point to emotional stress as the cause of the symptoms.
In an editorial accompanying the JAMA article, Drs. Joyce C. Lashof and Joseph S. Cassells cited the now clear evidence that Gulf War syndrome is a real illness, although its cause will probably never be known. “Of paramount importance,” they wrote, “is the need to acknowledge and validate that Gulf War veterans are experiencing real illnesses and must receive proper care. Despite the absence of a definitive cause of these illnesses, treatment of symptoms can be effective. Clinicians need to help these patients learn to cope better with their chronic symptoms, increase their daily level of functioning, and help them focus on treatment rather than cause.”
Fukuda, K., et. al.,(1998) Chronic multisystem illness affecting Air Force veterans of the Gulf War. Journal of the American Medical Association, 280, 981–988.