Chemical Exposures Conference

WASHINGTON, April 22, 1999 (GulfLINK) � A research planning conference on The Health Impact of Chemical Exposures during the Gulf War drew a broad spectrum of government and private sector scientists to Atlanta, Georgia, February 28 - March 2, as well as a number of veterans and their representatives. The conference was sponsored by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in coordination with The National Institutes of Health, The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and The Office of Public Health and Science, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Congressman Bernard Sanders, who is responsible for the legislation that funded this conference, gave the opening remarks.

"DoD and the VA have mistaken motion for progress," he said, stating that veterans need to be treated now, even without knowing the cause, and that alternative medicine methods should be tried as long as they won�t cause any harm.

Among the representatives of the Department of Defense's Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses in attendance was Dr. Kelley Brix, a member of the medical outreach and issues team. She says the conference served its purpose, to provide a forum for broad public input into the development of a research plan for investigating the relationship between chemical exposures and Gulf War illnesses.

"Four lists of research recommendations were developed, which will be typed up and mailed to each conference participant."

Scientists in four work groups focused on the following research areas: biological mechanisms of the possible causes of illness, etiology, and mechanisms or actions, assessment and diagnosis of illnesses associated with chemical exposures, treatment of Gulf War veterans, and prevention.

Nearly 400 people attended the conference - about 70 percent were scientists from federal agencies, academic institutions, medical schools and other research and medical organizations or policy makers. The remaining 30 percent were mostly veterans and veterans' advocates, but also a few non-military people who believed they were ill due to some type of chemical exposure.

This was the first time veterans were invited to participate in the research efforts. To make sure veterans were involved in the process, the CDC held a veteran�s forum the first evening of the conference. About 200 people attended, with 36 providing testimony.

"The purpose was for the veterans to provide input to the work group chairs on research recommendations," says Brix. "Veterans also expressed their concerns about the medical care they have received. It was scheduled from 7:30 to 9 p.m., but it lasted until 10:45." She says some veterans called for the declassification of all information about exposures and health problems among Gulf War veterans. Others called for an all-encompassing definition for "Gulf War Syndrome," and many complained that they cannot get what they consider appropriate treatment. The conference included discussions of many of the possible chemical exposures of concern to Gulf War veterans and the illnesses some veterans are experiencing, including chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, autoimmune disorders and other health problems. Multiple chemical sensitivity was one of the more controversial subjects because many physicians do not accept that diagnosis.

Just as important as the presentations by researchers and medical specialists was the panel discussion called "The Experience of Veterans" held the first morning of the conference, during which scientists heard veterans' first-hand accounts. Individuals and representatives of the organizations that support veterans discussed unexplained illnesses from a patient's perspective and presented their own view of research priorities.

The four work groups met each day of the conference and each group developed specific recommendations for the direction of future research into the illnesses of Gulf War veterans.

"Many ideas were presented during the conference," said Brix. "These ideas were not prioritized, nor evaluated for feasibility or availability of resources. Clearly a lot of thoughtful consideration will be needed before CDC releases its final conference recommendations."

The CDC�s own background document on the conference gives more details. The conference planning committee intends to release their final report from the conference in about six months.