UK government accused of hindering Gulf inquiry
Quarrel brews over evidence for soldiers' sickness.
Britain's Ministry of Defence has asked scientists studying Gulf War veterans' illnesses to withhold some of their findings from an ongoing investigation into the mysterious affliction.
The independent inquiry, which started on 12 July, aims to pinpoint the cause of the ailments reported by veterans of the 1990-91 conflict, which are often dubbed Gulf War syndrome. The inquiry is funded by anonymous donations and is the first such investigation to take place without the official involvement of the government.
Last week the Ministry of Defence sent a letter to over 40 scientists who carry out government-sponsored research, asking them not to discuss unpublished results at the inquiry because such results would not have been scrutinized by other scientists yet. The memo also says that it would not be "appropriate" for government ministers or members of the armed forces to attend the investigation.The ministry says that an inquiry is premature, because establishing the cause of veterans' ill health requires more medical evidence than is currently available. They insist they are helping the inquiry by sending any relevant documents. "We are by no means trying to gag people," says spokeswoman Rachel Yeomans.
Ministry of Defence
But the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association, a UK organization that circulated the defence ministry's letter to the press this week, says that the ministry is not cooperating with the investigation. The association believes that the government is attempting to avoid taking responsibility for actions that might have triggered the illness. "They're trying to do damage control," says the association's chairman Shaun Rusling.
It is not clear whether scientists will heed the ministry's plea: University of Sunderland chemist Malcolm Hooper, who has been involved in helping British Gulf veterans, says that he still plans to appear before the inquiry. "Scientists have always talked about things before they are published," he says.
The existence, or not, of Gulf War syndrome has been the subject of intense debate ever since veterans began lining up at clinics. Last week, for example, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Gulf soldiers were more likely to report ill health than those who had not fought there. But the study could find no single explanation for their symptoms, which include fatigue, muscle pain and memory loss1.Veterans say that they want their illness to be acknowledged so that they can receive appropriate medical care and disability pensions, and pursue research into treatments. An estimated 25-30% of veterans are thought to have suffered some form of illness after the first Gulf War.
vice chairman War Veterans and Families Association, UK
Robert Haley of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who has led much of the research into Gulf War illnesses, believes that a key cause of the soldiers' sickness was low-level exposure to the nerve gas sarin. The gas may have been released by the bombing of chemical weapons facilities in Iraq. He points to evidence such as animal studies in which doses of sarin caused symptoms similar to those the veterans are experiencing.
Several other factors have been implicated in the condition, including cocktails of military vaccines against anthrax and plague, organophosphate pesticides, depleted uranium in weapons and anti-nerve-gas tablets.
The US government has acknowledged that toxins used in the war may be responsible for Gulf War-related illnesses. By contrast, although the UK Ministry of Defence acknowledges that there are such illnesses, it does not recognize a single 'Gulf War syndrome' or a likely cause.
Experts say that troops returning from Iraq after the recent conflict are not showing the same symptoms because they have not been exposed to the same vaccines or toxins. "There's no mystery disease this time," Haley says. But a study in BMC Public Health this month showed that around one in six soldiers are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression2.
- Hoge C.W. et al. N Engl J Med, 351. 13 - 22 (2004). http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/351/1/13
- Simmons R.K. Maconochie N. & Doyle P. BMC Public Health, 4. 27 doi:10.1186/1471-2458-4-27 (2004).