WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Studies confirm that Gulf War veterans suffer disproportionately from post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychiatric illnesses as well as vague symptoms often classified as Gulf War Syndrome, a panel of experts reported on Friday.
The Institute of Medicine panel said better studies are needed to characterize a clear pattern of distress and other symptoms among veterans of the conflicts in the Gulf region that started in 1990 and continue today.
“It is clear that a significant portion of the soldiers deployed to the Gulf War have experienced troubling constellations of symptoms that are difficult to categorize,” said Stephen Hauser, chairman of the department of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco.
The committee declined to say that there was any such thing as Gulf War Syndrome but did note many veterans had “multisymptom illness.”
“Unfortunately, symptoms that cannot be easily quantified are sometimes incorrectly dismissed as insignificant and receive inadequate attention and funding by the medical and scientific establishment,” Hauser added in a statement.
“Veterans who continue to suffer from these symptoms deserve the very best that modern science and medicine can offer to speed the development of effective treatments, cures, and — we hope — prevention.”
Hauser and the rest of the panel reviewed 400 studies in-depth for their report and concluded that in many cases there was tantalizing evidence, but just not enough data to back it up.
They found many reports of “seemingly related symptoms, including persistent fatigue, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, memory problems, headache, bodily pains, disturbances of sleep, as well as other physical and emotional problems.”
But doctors struggle to categorize as they have no known cause, no diagnostic biomarkers and no way to find traces in tissue.
Studies showed sufficient evidence that veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and substance abuse, particularly alcohol abuse and gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome.
There is also clear evidence of “multisymptom illness” among U.S., British and Australian veterans but not enough evidence to show what may have caused it.
“It is beyond dispute, however, that the prevalence of symptoms such as headaches, joint pain, and difficulty concentrating, is higher in veterans deployed to the Gulf War theater than the others,” the report reads.
The experts, including epidemiologists who study patterns of disease, neurologists and psychiatrists, found limited but suggestive evidence that Gulf War veterans have higher rates of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease — a crippling, progressive and fatal nerve disease.
Veterans also appear to risk fibromyalgia and chronic widespread pain, sexual difficulties and deaths from car accidents.
Inadequate evidence could be found of links to cancer, blood disease, hormone imbalances, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, birth defects, pregnancy or fertility problems.
Better studies are needed to follow veterans long-term and catalog their illnesses. “A second branch of inquiry is also important,” the report added.
“It consists of a renewed research effort to identify and treat multisymptom illness in Gulf War veterans.”
Editing by Jackie Frank