Chemical Exposures Conference

WASHINGTON, February 16, 1999 (GulfLINK) - A broad spectrum of government and private sector scientists will meet with veterans and their representatives at a research planning conference on The Health Impact of Chemical Exposures during the Gulf War in Atlanta, Georgia February 28th through March 2nd. The conference is expected to provide a forum for broad public input into the development of a research plan for investigating the connection between chemical exposures and Gulf War illnesses.

The conference will be sponsored by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 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. More than 200 scientists from academic institutions, medical schools and other research and medical organizations are expected to attend, along with government scientists, advocates, and veterans of the Gulf War.

Drue Barrett, Ph.D., the chief of the National Center for Environmental Health's Veterans Health Activity Working Group, CDC, is the research scientist who chairs the planning committee for this conference. She expects the conference to help government scientists plan the next steps for investigating the effects of Gulf War exposures.

"Our purpose is to gather broad public input into our research agenda and to come up with some specific recommendations," she says.

The conference will include discussions of many of the possible chemical exposures Gulf War veterans are concerned about, and the illnesses so many may be experiencing, including chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, auto immune disorders and other health problems.

"We'll have talks on the known health impacts on the immune system and other systems," Barrett says. "We're asking, what are the appropriate research methods for studying conditions where you have multi- system reactions?"

Just as important as the presentations by researchers and medical specialists are the sessions in which scientists will hear about the Gulf War experience from first hand accounts. Individuals and representatives of the organizations that support veterans will discuss unexplained and undiagnosed illnesses from a patient's perspective and present their own view of research priorities.

"We will include veterans in the process," Barrett says. " The veterans forum will give all the vets in the audience the opportunity to come together for open discussions with all the researchers."

Navy Capt. Michael Kilpatrick, M.D., director of medical outreach and issues for the DoD's Gulf War illnesses office, says one thing doctors at the conference will try to do is develop a foundation for trying to approach the difficult problem of multiple chemical sensitivity as a disease process that many people believe in, but that many physicians don't accept as a diagnosis.

But no one illness or set of symptoms will dominate the chemical exposure conference. Kilpatrick is one of DoD's representatives to the conference who will be part of a work group focused on prevention. Other work groups will concentrate on the medical effects of chemical exposures, the diagnosis of illnesses associated with chemical exposures, and the treatment of Gulf War veterans. All four working groups will meet each of the three days of the conference. Getting more appropriate treatment for veterans with undiagnosed illness is an important possible result of the conference, Kilpatrick says, one that particularly applies to veterans who feel they have multiple chemical sensitivity.

"It's not a recognized disease and therefore treatments are experimental, and patients are frustrated because they believe from reading the lay literature or the Internet, that they have multiple chemical sensitivity."

Kilpatrick hopes the conference will be a way to bring divergent groups of scientists, doctors, veterans and veterans service organizations together to find common ground on how to proceed to develop a research agenda, and ultimately to name and define the illnesses veterans are dealing with.

"We need to agree on what to test, so I think that this process could benefit the veterans if we can get rid of disinformation and misinformation and deal in facts," he says.

The veterans forum will be an opportunity for veterans to make the chairs of all four working groups aware of their concerns. Other members of the working groups will also be invited to attend. Barrett says the entire conference will be a forum for getting input from veterans and veterans support groups, private scientists and government scientists, and advocates of a variety of theories related to these unexplained illnesses. By including all interested parties in this dialog, researchers can get a fuller picture of the issues involved. Barrett says the feedback from the veterans themselves has been positive.

"They're very hopeful of this enterprise," she says, "And about being involved in the process."

Each of the four work groups will develop specific recommendations for the direction of future research into the illnesses of Gulf War veterans.