Conference on Federally Sponsored Research on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses Research meets in Washington



WASHINGTON, July 22, 1998 (GulfLINK) - Federally funded scientists, physicians and others from around the world were recently given an opportunity to examine each other's efforts to understand the nature of Gulf War illnesses. More than 280 professionals attended a conference on federally sponsored Gulf War illnesses research in Washington from June 17 to 19, 1998 to discuss their findings and look for new insights. Officials say this meeting, organized by the Research Working Group of the Persian Gulf Veterans Coordinating Board, was markedly different from earlier meetings because of the breadth, depth and growing maturity of the current research program on illnesses among Gulf War veterans. In addition to researchers, the meeting was attended by Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs clinicians who treat veterans on a daily basis. The meeting was open and included members of veterans service organizations. The Research Working Group provides programmatic management of the research efforts of the DoD, VA and Department of Health and Human Services.

In 1993, President Clinton designated the Secretary of Veterans Affairs as the coordinator of federal research efforts on Gulf War veterans' illnesses. This led to the formation of what is now the Research Working Group that became a part of the Persian Gulf Veterans Coordinating Board when it was formed in 1994.

Timothy R. Gerrity, Ph.D., from the VA Office of Research and Development, and chair of the conference, opened the three-day session by telling the attendees that the key to better understanding the illnesses of Gulf War veterans is highly focused research that undergoes the rigorous scrutiny of scientific peer review all during the research process.

Following the conference he summarized what he felt were the major points as an outcome of this meeting.

"Although this meeting has not revealed any startlingly new information, it provides us with a picture of the major efforts underway that are beginning to produce preliminary results and are well on the road to final products within the next 12 to 18 months," Gerrity said.

"One important message that has come from the science presented here," Gerrity went on to say, "is that the symptoms associated with unexplained illnesses, and that seem to be accompanied by decreases in neuropsychological performance, can only be accounted in part by psychological distress. It is clear that we still have much to learn about the nature of Gulf War veterans' illnesses."

While the professionals took the opportunity to discuss their research at the gathering, they were careful to avoid drawing any broad conclusions because most of the results from the ongoing research efforts are still preliminary. Due to the complexity of the research efforts, officials say the findings offered by the scientists are being used to gradually build a body of knowledge about the health of Gulf War veterans and potential risk factors that concern them.

Navy Capt. Michael E. Kilpatrick, M.D., director of medical and benefits collaboration for the DoD's Gulf War illnesses office, serves as one of the DoD representatives in the group. He says the sessions this year were very positive.

"They brought medical doctors and researchers together so they could all get a better appreciation of some of the findings presented," he said.

Kilpatrick said new research is focusing on treatment of Gulf War veterans, with VA and DoD investing as much as $10 million in what may become the single largest clinical trial of a treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

Approximately one-third of federally supported research is devoted to epidemiological research, another third to clinical research, and the remainder to basic research.

Over the last few years, the proportion of large, broadly-based epidemiologic projects has declined while the number of more targeted studies concerning the health effects of a variety of exposures has markedly increased. Examples include research on chemical interactions, effects of low-level exposure to chemical warfare agents and studies on pyridostigmine bromide, a pre-treatment medication taken by service members during the Gulf War to protect them from exposure to the deadly nerve agent, soman.

The Research Working Group noted in its Annual Report to Congress for 1997 that scientists outside of the government are performing more than half of the 121 projects monitored by the group. As of the date of the report, 39 of the projects started since 1994 have been completed, 78 are ongoing and four will begin soon. In all, the current federal funding commitment to research on illnesses among Gulf War veterans approaches the $115 million mark.