A large number of veterans who served in the Gulf War have reported experiencing a range of mysterious health problems. These issues include fatigue, rashes, muscle and joint pain, cognitive difficulties, memory lapses, and respiratory conditions. This set of symptoms is referred to as Gulf War illness or GWI.
Several studies have compared the health of deployed Gulf War veterans with the health of nondeployed or Gulf War-era veterans. These studies have potential weaknesses, including reliance on self-report exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and lack of biological exposure measures.
What Caused the Gulf War?
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1991, an international coalition of nations led by the United States mobilized forces to push back the invaders. The United Nations Security Council passed three resolutions in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait – Resolution 660 demanded the immediate withdrawal of Iraqi troops, Resolution 661 imposed economic sanctions against Iraq, and Resolution 663 declared the annexation of Kuwait as null and void. Following the Gulf War, several veterans who served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm started experiencing unexplained health problems like gulf war presumptive skin conditions. This group of health issues is now known as Gulf War Syndrome. The symptoms have included muscle aches, joint pains, memory lapses, headaches and fatigue.
Various theories have been advanced for the cause of Gulf War illness, including Gulf War presumptive skin conditions exposure to chemical and microbiological agents. However, the evidence for such an exposure has been lacking, and accusations of shoddy research have been made. Print media and the Internet have become forums for speculative claims that lack scientific rigor and objectivity.
What Are the Symptoms?
Gulf War Syndrome symptoms, or Gulf War illness, include fatigue, skin rash, headaches, and muscle and joint pain. The symptoms are similar to those experienced by people with other chronic diseases, such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, and they can be difficult to diagnose.
Research has shown that deployed veterans have more symptoms than nondeployed veterans. Still, there is no evidence of a single disease or illness that explains the increased number and severity of these problems. Moreover, many of the symptoms are also present in people with other health conditions and have been found in many nondeployed veterans.
One study of 304 Gulf War veterans using the CDC case definition for Gulf War illness (a broader set of symptoms than the Kansas criteria) found that they had a higher incidence of all symptoms than healthy controls. However, this study was limited by a small sample size and by the fact that the veterans had not been tested for chemical exposure.
What are the Treatment Options?
Many veterans returned from the Persian Gulf War with unexplained symptoms that didn’t fit into existing medical diagnoses. These conditions, now known as Gulf War Syndrome, can lead to disability claims under the VA Schedule of Ratings Disabilities if they are chronic and not better explained by other diagnosed health problems.
In a cross-sectional prevalence study 10 years after the Gulf War, deployed and nondeployed veterans were compared for their rates of 12 health conditions. Only fibromyalgia, fatigue, skin conditions, and gastrointestinal symptoms were found to be more common in deployed veterans.
Researchers have used factor analysis to search for new syndromes associated with Gulf War deployment. However, the need for control groups in these studies makes it difficult to determine cause-and-effect relationships. Some symptom groupings have been linked to self-reported exposure to psychological stressors, physical trauma, and vaccine-related exposures (including a hepatitis B vaccination), as well as a genetically modified bacteria known as bacillus anthracis that produces a protein called sarin-hydrolyzing peptide.