Prevalence of Gulf War Illness Varies by Deployment Area

Karen Lee Richards Health Guide
  • The journal Environmental Health Perspectives has published the results of a study which investigated the links between Gulf War Illness (GWI) and where veterans were located during the war

    What is Gulf War Illness?

    Gulf War Illness is described by the Veteran's Administration as “medically unexplained chronic multisymptom illnesses” affecting Gulf War Veterans.  These illnesses include:

    • Fibromyalgia
    • Chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS)
    • Functional gastrointestinal disorders
    • Undiagnosed illnesses with symptoms that may include but are not limited to: abnormal weight loss, fatigue, cardiovascular disease, muscle and joint pain, headache, menstrual disorders, neurological and psychological problems, skin conditions, respiratory disorders, and sleep disturbances.

    For benefit purposes, the VA defines Gulf War Veterans as those who served on active duty in the Southwest Asia theater of military operations any time during the first Gulf War starting August 2, 1990 through the Iraq War and subsequent reduced operations in Iraq. Military operations include Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, and New Dawn.

    Background for the Study

    Following the 1991 Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm, a significant number of veterans began complaining of multiple unexplained symptoms, which have since been labeled Gulf War Illness.  Concerns were raised about a variety of chemical exposures associated with Gulf War deployment.

    Investigations sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense indicated that approximately 100,000 U.S. troops were potentially exposed to low levels of chemical nerve agents released during weapons demolition operations in Iraq after the 1991 cease fire, and that thousands of troops were likely overexposed to different types of pesticides, which were commonly misused and overused during the 1991 Gulf War.

    Additional studies indicate that GWI affects at least 25% of veterans who served in the 1991 Gulf War, and that few have recovered over time.

    Study Design and Results

    The Baylor University study, which began in 2000, evaluated symptoms, health conditions and deployment experiences reported by 304 veterans who served in the 1991 Gulf War.

    The study found that GWI prevalence was nearly six times higher in veterans who served in Iraq or Kuwait, where all ground battles took place during the 1991 conflict, compared to veterans who remained on board ship during the war. For troops in the high-risk areas, GWI prevalence was 3.5 times greater in the subgroup that used pyridostigmine bromide pills, or PB, compared to those who did not use PB, which was issued by the military as a protective measure in the event of a nerve gas attack. GWI was also increased for forward-deployed personnel who reported being near exploded SCUD missiles or smoke from the Kuwaiti oil fires, and pesticide use.

    In contrast, for veterans who remained in support areas, GWI was significantly increased only in the relatively small subgroup that wore pesticide-treated uniforms and also used skin pesticides.

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  • No significant link was found between GWI and warzone experiences associated with a high degree of psychological stress, such as serving in combat and seeing others who were killed or badly injured.

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    “Our study results strongly suggest that GWI is the residual effect of exposures encountered by military personnel who served in the 1991 Gulf War,” said Lea Steele, Ph.D., Baylor University epidemiologist and lead author of the study.  “Although the specific biological mechanisms are not well understood, we know that a number of the 1991 Gulf War exposures of concern—PB pills, many of the pesticides, and low-level nerve agents—affect the same nerve signaling chemical, acetylcholine, which is involved in diverse processes necessary for normal brain and neurological function.”

    Dr. Steele went on to say, “Twenty years after Desert Storm, it is essential to understand why veterans became ill, to better address the biological mechanisms that underlie veterans’ symptoms and to prevent this problem from happening in the future.”

    My Thoughts...

    I couldn't agree more with Dr. Steele.  Our veterans deserve the best medical care, research and support we can give them.  I'm so glad to see this research being done.  We can only hope that it leads to new methods to better protect the men and women who serve our country so unselfishly. 

    I'd also like to see the results of this study lead to new fibromyalgia and ME/CFS research.  I've long suspected that there was some connection between all the chemicals and pesticides we're exposed to in our modern world and the ever-increasing number of people being diagnosed with these illnesses.  Maybe this study will trigger some new avenues of research. 

    Steele L, Sastre A, Gerkovich MM, Cook MR 2011. Complex Factors in the Etiology of Gulf War Illness: Wartime Exposures and Risk Factors in Veteran Subgroups. Environ Health Perspect.

    Causes of Gulf War Illness Are Complex and Vary by Deployment Area. Newswise. News Release. September 19, 2011.

Published On: September 21, 2011