Gulf War partners cooperate in Gulf War illnesses investigation

WASHINGTON, January 26,1998 (GulfNEWS) - In September 1997, a team of U.S. officials completed a fact-finding trip to three Gulf War coalition countries in Europe. These visits confirmed U.S. findings related to country-specific Gulf War experiences and opened the dialogue for future cooperation.

Bernard Rostker, the special assistant for Gulf War illnesses, conducted the visits to Prague, Paris, and London, from September 8-20, 1997. The purpose of the trip was to share with coalition partners the results of the U.S. investigation into Gulf War illnesses, to explore operational and medical questions related to chemical weapons and environmental hazards in the Gulf War and to establish relationships for mutual cooperation.

"We don't have a direct link between what happened in the Gulf and the illnesses," said Rostker during a BBC Radio interview. "That's why we are engaged in the medical research, a chemical program and the program to clearly understand what happened in the Gulf."

In the Czech Republic, Rostker's visit focused on two issues: the health of their 200 Gulf War veterans and interest in the two possible chemical agent detections reported by the Czechs in January 1991. During the initial stage of visits, members of Rostker's team met with Czech officials at the Chemical Mobilization Base and Training Center in Liberac, Czech Republic. They were briefed on the organization of Czech chemical forces during the war and the capabilities of Czech chemical agent detection equipment. In 1994, the U.S. Army National Ground Intelligence Center, Charlottesville, Virginia, determined the Czech equipment used in the war to be more sensitive than that used by the U.S. during the war and less prone to common battlefield interference.

"As far as their detections were concerned, we, as others, reviewed all of their equipment. It is very sensitive equipment, but I was interested, and we pressed them very hard, on the issue of were there any detections at any other period during the war, and when did they turn off their detectors," Rostker said during a Department of Defense briefing on September 25, 1997.

Through discussions, the DoD team confirmed that the Czechs reported a chemical alert on January 19, 1991 and on January 24, 1991. The sources of the alerts are still unknown. The Czechs also confirmed that their equipment never alerted again, before, during, or after the ground war.

"There is a hypothesis out there that the battlefield was just flooded with chemicals, and if it was, then the Czech equipment should have found it," explained Rostker. "The Czech equipment was so sensitive that at the levels that it reported on these two occasions, Czech soldiers didn't even go into MOPP [mission oriented protective posture] gear because it was so subclinical," Rostker said.

In Prague, the chief of military medical service provided insights into the Czech investigation of veterans' health issues. The Czech government has conducted two comprehensive studies of the illnesses experienced by their Gulf War veterans. Their studies found no similarity between symptoms reported by Czech veterans and those experienced by U.S. troops. Further, the Czechs have made no comparisons between the incidence of veterans' illnesses and the rate of occurrence in the general Czech population. Rostker's team was informed that Czech forces were not given either inoculations for anthrax or botulinum toxin nor did they use pyridostigmine bromide as protection against chemical warfare agent attack. Czech officials offered their most recent report, released in August, for posting on DoD's Internet site, GulfLINK, when it is translated. The U.S. team provided Czech officials with a copy of the DoD draft case narrative on Czech reports of possible chemical agent detections in the Kuwaiti theater of operations and asked for their comments.

Rostker found the discussions with French officials to be open and productive.

"French medical personnel found no reporting of illnesses by their forces deployed in the Gulf," said Rostker. "They confirmed that there were no French veterans who were receiving compensation for health reasons," he added.

The DoD team clarified misperceptions about the French use of pyridostigmine bromide during the war. Approximately 25,000 French personnel served in the Gulf War. While French commanders never ordered the use of pyridostigmine bromide, the French acknowledge that some French soldiers, primarily those deployed with other countries' forces did use the pre-treatment drug.

"There has been a suggestion that one reason the French soldiers might not be sick is that they did not take pyridostigmine bromide. This is not the case," said Rostker. "There was no order to take pyridostigmine bromide, but when [officials] went to collect it, a lot was missing, and they attributed that to units that were in proximity to American units.... In fact, in the operations briefing, a senior colonel in the Chemical Corps said, 'Pyridostigmine bromide? No problem. I took it every day for a month.'"

"So that hypothesis, that it could be related grossly to the presence or absence of pyridostigmine bromide, that would not hold up to the facts that at least elements of the French force did take [pyridostigmine bromide]," said Rostker.

Representatives of the French surgeon general noted that their government had performed extensive research on the effects of the interaction of pyridostigmine bromide with other factors present in the Gulf as well as the long term effects of sub-lethal doses of soman on baboons. The DoD team learned that although France did not use organophosphate or organochloride pesticides during the Gulf War; they did use carbamates and pyrethroids.

Organophospates, organochlorines, carbamates and pyrethroids are classes of pesticides which are represented in various products readily available in the U.S. While all these classes act on the central nervous system, organophosphates are usually the most toxic to humans, while pyrethroids are the least toxic. Several chemical warfare agents, such as sarin and soman, are organophosphates.

Rostker's team briefed the French on the results of the plume analysis and DoD's efforts to learn the extent to which U.S. troops may have been exposed to Sarin from the demolitions at Khamisiyah, Iraq, on March 10, 1991. And French officials invited the special assistant to return and visit France's Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Center for briefings on chemical agent detection equipment capabilities and procedures.

"It was a good, two-way exchange," Rostker said.

In London, Rostker had extensive discussions on a wide range of issues regarding public and parliamentary concerns over Gulf War veterans' illnesses, an overview of the British program, medical research and ongoing investigations. Some British Gulf War veterans are exhibiting similar symptoms experienced by U.S. veterans. Approximately 53,000 Britons served in the Gulf War and about 2,000 veterans have reported illnesses. In response, the U.K. created the "medical assessment program" and the "Gulf veterans illness unit" within the Ministry of Defense to ensure that veterans have prompt access to medical advice.

To protect against the potential threat of biological and chemical weapons during the war, British troops received a large array of vaccinations as well as nerve agent pre-treatment sets - called "NAPS" - tablets which consisted of pyridostigmine bromide.

Veterans have since claimed that a "cocktail" of immunizations may be responsible for their health problems. The British government is investigating the implementation of their vaccination program and is supporting new research into possible interactions between vaccines, NAPS tablets and organophosphate pesticides as a possible cause of Gulf War illnesses. United Kingdom officials expressed the hope of continued coordination with the US investigation so that research efforts are not duplicated. The U.K. investigative team expects to release their findings in a report to the House of Lords in October 1997.

"Having national research that is reviewed and coordinated internationally is very helpful in trying to get to the bottom of this," Rostker said.

The U.K. also agreed to work cooperatively with the U.S. investigative team on the Sabahiyah Girls' School investigation and subsequent release of the case narrative. The case involves the reported positive detection by a Fox reconnaissance vehicle of mustard blister agent in a storage tank outside a school in Kuwait after the Gulf War. A British explosive ordnance disposal unit was the first to make a reported detection of the agent inside the tank. Samples were removed from the tank and taken to Porter Down, England for analysis. Rostker's team learned that British research and analysis of the event corresponds with information being developed by the Office of the Special Assistant. Using sources and data from both countries, the U.S. and U.K. have agreed to prepare a joint report to be released simultaneously.

"The visits provided an excellent opportunity to establish the ground work for future meetings and cooperation," said Rostker.