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BUILDUP IN THE PERSIAN GULF : Pentagon Takes Steps to Prevent Mysterious Gulf War Illness : Health: Records will be kept of hazardous exposure. Vaccine requirements of '91 operation will be dropped.

October 13, 1994|MARLENE CIMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon, hoping to prevent a repeat of the mysterious spate of illnesses in those who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, will require medical personnel deployed to Kuwait in the current operation to keep careful records of troop exposure to possible environmental hazards and drug treatments, officials said Wednesday.

"This time we will try to get this information as we go instead of after the fact," said Col. Doug Hart, a spokesman for the Defense Department. "We will be putting more emphasis on the recording of things than was done before. We'll have more information than we had last time."

Also, the Pentagon will not require soldiers to take certain preventive drugs and vaccines that were given in the earlier deployment and were blamed by many for medical problems.

An estimated 20,000 of the nearly 700,000 troops who served in the Gulf four years ago have reported numerous ailments, including fatigue, skin rashes, muscle and joint pain, headaches, memory loss, shortness of breath and gastrointestinal problems, as well as birth defects in their offspring.

Their complaints have prompted a series of investigations that thus far have yielded no definitive conclusions.

The medical personnel's primary assignment will be to provide care for the troops, a function no different from that in any other military operation, Hart said. However, they also will be asked to register all treatments and environmental exposures and any other additional information that could prove useful should additional illnesses develop, or as part of the ongoing investigation of the still-unsolved syndrome.

Medical teams in the Persian Gulf "will be able to provide information and investigate industrial pollutants, stress, infectious diseases and possible biological and chemical warfare," Hart added. "It will make a difference, having these people there, recording all this stuff immediately. That's the one thing we did learn from previous experience--it is taking us a lot longer because we're doing it after the fact."

Asked earlier in the week about Persian Gulf War Syndrome, Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that "no one is more concerned and frustrated about our inability to get at the root of that problem than the Defense Department."

He added: "I don't have an easy answer for anyone, because we don't know what really happened, other than that we are going to watch this very, very carefully for any signs of possible repetition."

No single substance or organism has been identified as the cause of the health problems suffered by veterans of Operation Desert Storm.

But many of the troops were exposed to a variety of potentially toxic chemicals, as in fumes and smoke from oil-well fires, diesel fumes, toxic paints, pesticides and depleted uranium used in munitions and armor.

They were also given at least three drugs under special circumstances in which the military and the Food and Drug Administration waived the usual informed-consent procedures because of expected battlefield conditions.

The drugs included pyridostigmine bromide, a drug to protect against chemical warfare, which is licensed only for the treatment of myasthenia gravis, a chronic muscle weakness disorder; an as-yet-unapproved vaccine to combat botulism, and a licensed vaccine to protect against anthrax.

None of the three is being administered to soldiers serving in the current deployment, Hart said.

Desert Storm soldiers were instructed to take a series of pyridostigmine bromide tablets to ward off the potential effects of chemical warfare. But the drug has side effects, among them serious gastrointestinal symptoms. Many soldiers reported uncontrolled vomiting after taking the drug, in addition to bouts of pain and other disabling ailments.

Hart denied that Gulf War Syndrome was the reason Defense Department officials decided against requiring the drug this time.

"It's available but not required. If the threat is strong enough, it will be distributed," he said. "At this point, we don't think the threat is the same."

The anthrax and botulism vaccines have not been administered this time either, he said.

However, the troops have received routine mandatory inoculations known to be safe, Hart said, including vaccines to protect against hepatitis, influenza, measles, polio and tetanus.

Gulf War Syndrome

Facts about the illness that has stricken Gulf veterans:

* Background: Gulf War Syndrome is a mysterious collection of illnesses affecting at least 200,000 men and women who served in Desert Storm. Some spouses have also complained of ill effects.

* Symptoms: Debilitating fatigue, skin rash, headaches, muscle or joint pain, chest pain, shortness of breath, memory loss, sleep disturbances and diarrhea.

* Cause: Its existence has been validated by the National Institutes of Health, but no specific cause has been diagnosed. Theories include stress, parasites and reactions to pills or inoculations designed to counter the effects of chemical warfare. Other suspected causes include exposure to chemical toxins, ammunition made from depleted uranium, poor sanitation, oil-well fires, burning landfills or a combination of these factors.

Source: Associated Press

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