Researchers Conference Advances Studies on Gulf War Illnesses


WASHINGTON, October 11, 1999 (GulfLINK) - The Persian Gulf Veterans Coordinating Board recently sponsored its fourth annual conference on federally-sponsored Gulf War illnesses studies, giving researchers a forum to compare notes on ideas that could help shape future efforts. This year's conference differed from earlier events in that it opened its doors to the general public, veterans and news media.

The conference, beyond serving as a chance for researchers to share study results, allowed veterans and their support groups to learn more about ongoing research and to interact directly with the physicians, scientists and government officials involved with Gulf War studies. Additionally, the conference provided a platform for government officials to learn about Gulf War-related research effecting future deployment policies and it provided a chance for physicians to hear the latest diagnosis and treatment practices for veterans' illnesses.

About 300 people attended the three-day conference. Roughly 60 percent represented researchers. The remaining attendees included government scientists, contractors and Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs' physicians. Several veterans also in attendance represented a variety of service organizations.

Kelley Brix, M.D., a member of the medical outreach and issues directorate from the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses and a participating researcher, says the conference opened with two excellent speeches about chronic fatigue and other syndromes that are diagnosed solely on symptoms.

"The major points," Brix says, "were that these diagnoses are difficult to make. The diagnoses are complex because of overlap with many other medical conditions. Research on them is difficult, and appropriate treatment is uncertain or unproven."

Attendees also received progress reports on several National Academy of Sciences projects. One, a long-term examination of the health effects of demolitions at Khamisiyah, is scheduled for completion late in the year 2000 while an Army-funded study of six chemical warfare agents is expected out in the next few months.

A representative of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discussed Atlanta's March 1999 conference on possible chemical exposures of Gulf War veterans and announced the posting of a transcript of that conference on their Internet site,

Brix says other noteworthy sessions included the VA report on two DoD-cooperative clinical trials - exercise/behavioral therapy and antibiotic treatment - and a presentation by Rear Adm. Michael Cowan, chief of staff to the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, on recent developments in force health protection. Force health protection, in part, involves defending future combat troops from dangers to which previous war veterans were exposed.

"Admiral Cowan talked about the 'terror' that DoD planners have for the potential use of chemical and biological weapons by terrorists," Brix said, "in particular, the use of anthrax."

She said he gave in-depth information about the anthrax vaccine program as one lesson DoD was learning from the Gulf War experience when a lack of accurate information about the vaccines caused fear and confusion that continues to the present.

Other results of lessons learned include improvement of protective gear and expansion of environmental monitoring during current deployments.

The second day of the conference concluded with a veterans' round-table discussion. Nine scientists from various private and government organizations met with more than 30 veterans. Seven veterans' service organizations also sent official representatives.

"This session was scheduled to provide veterans with an opportunity to state their recommendations for research to a panel of VSO representatives and scientists," Brix said.

On the final day of the conference, Susan Mather, M.D., chief officer of the VA's public health and environmental hazards office, presented an overview of the Baltimore VA medical center's depleted uranium program. The program monitors the health of Gulf War veterans who have, or previously had, depleted uranium fragments in their bodies as a result of combat-related injuries. She also described the expanded DoD and VA medical evaluation program, which has examined more than 125 veterans for potential exposure to depleted uranium.

Included in the final day, an overview of British veterans' concerns presented by Colonel John Graham, the British liaison for Gulf War illnesses, revealed an accounting of various concerns. Like their American counterparts, some British soldiers also are apprehensive about the effects of pyridostigmine bromide, depleted uranium, oil well fires and post traumatic stress disorder.

Brix says conference organizers recognize that this type of international coordination and exchange between researchers, physicians and government officials plays an important role in finding the causes, and more importantly, possible treatments for undiagnosed illnesses of Gulf War veterans.

Since 1994, there have been more than 145 federally-funded research projects on Gulf War illnesses, exceeding $160 million in funding. Their Annual Report to Congress for 1998 contains summaries of most of the 145 current and previously completed projects.

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