A Baylor university epidemiologist testified last week before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on the care provided to veterans of the Gulf War.
Dr. Lea Steele, Ph.D., a research professor at the the Baylor Institute of Biomedical Studies, commented on Gulf War illness that the VA has been slow to clearly and accurately acknowledge the problem, and has failed to establish an effective and strategic scientific research program to address Gulf War illness research questions and issues.
Gulf War illness (GWI) is a chronic multi-symptom disorder affecting military veterans and civilian workers who served their country in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. GWI encompasses a wide range of acute and chronic symptoms that have been linked to the condition, including, but not limited to, fatigue, muscle pain, cognitive disorders, rashes, diarrhea, chronic headache, widespread pain, memory and concentration difficulties, digestive and other abnormalities — problems that are not adequately explained by medical or psychiatric diagnoses or by routine laboratory tests.
It is estimated that approximately 250,000 of the 697,000 Persian Gulf War veterans are afflicted with enduring chronic multi-symptom illness, a condition resulting in serious consequences and in some instances significant disability, and of those affected few have recovered over time.
According to report by USA Today’s Kelly Kennedy a Jan 23, 2013, an Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America report released by the federal Institute of Medicine indicated: “Preliminary data suggest that (chronic multi-symptom illness) is occurring in veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well.” Kennedy notes that this report may be the first time symptoms afflicting Gulf War veterans have been linked to veterans of the more recent wars Iraq and Afghanistan which began in 2001 and 2003 respectively.
Suggested causes of GWI have included exposure to depleted uranium, sarin gas, smoke from burning oil wells, vaccinations, combat stress and psychological factors, al though only pyridostigmine — an antitoxin for nerve agents — and organophosphate pesticides have been conclusively linked to the syndrome. The report by Today’s Kennedy notes that a large-scale study done by Robert Haley, chief of epidemiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas showed that some veterans have damage to their autonomic nervous system caused by exposure to nerve agents after the U.S. Air Force bombed a chemical factory.
Baylor’s Dr. Steele testified last week that within the Department of Veterans Affairs, there appears to have been backward movement, with official bureaucratic actions seemingly intended to ignore the science and minimize the fact that there are serious medical conditions resulting from military service in the 1991 Gulf War.
You can follow the link below to watch a video of Dr. Steele’s testimony. Because of a delay in the start of the hearing, her testimony begins at 1:35:38:
“This is a throwback to early speculation from the 1990s that there was no problem, or that veterans just had random, disconnected symptoms –symptoms that invariably develop after any military deployment and are likely stress-induced,” Dr. Steele said.
“Such opinions were more common in the 1990s, when there was limited research in this area. But they are inexplicable today, in 2013, in the face of consistent scientific evidence to the contrary. Such portrayals are especially troubling when they come from sectors within the federal agency tasked with serving veterans, and when they negatively affect government policies, healthcare, and research.”
Dr. Steele has been conducting research on the health of Gulf War veterans since 1998. Before joining the Baylor Institute of Biomedical Studies in 2010, she served as scientific director for the federal Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ illnesses. The committee was mandated by Congress to conduct an independent review of federal research addressing health issues facing Gulf War veterans.
“This is an incredibly important time for Gulf War illness research,” Dr Steele testified. “Scientific advances in the last decade have provided important insights into Gulf War illness — how many people are affected, which factors are most implicated as contributing to this problem, and the biological processes that drive veterans’ symptoms. Multiple research groups have now identified a range of neurological differences in veterans with Gulf War illness–differences in brain structures, brain function, and autonomic regulation. Studies have also identified specific immune, endocrine, and hematological differences in veterans with Gulf War illness.”
“At the same time, Dr. Steele continued, “results are beginning to come in from treatment studies that show significant benefits for veterans with Gulf War illness, with more treatment research in the pipeline, and more results expected in the near term. After so many years of waiting, there is finally some hope for Gulf War veterans — hope that they will have answers that are long overdue and hope that treatments will be found that can meaningfully improve their health and their lives. Those of us most involved in this research believe, based on recent progress, that these successes are possible, and within sight.”
Dr. Lea Steele is director of the Baylor Veterans’ Health Research Program and is the recipient of federal grants to support research projects on Gulf War illness. In one study, she is partnering with Scott & White Healthcare to provide clinical assessments, including an in-depth look at the brain, the immune system, and diverse other measures in Gulf War veterans.
“This project should give us a clearer picture of the complex biological processes that drive veterans’ symptoms,” Dr. Steele says. “This is an essential step for improving the care provided for ill veterans.”
Another project will focus on developing a blood test to improve the diagnosis of Gulf War illness. According to Dr. Steele, “Gulf War illness is currently defined only on the basis of veterans’ symptoms. An objective test to assist in diagnosing this condition would be immensely beneficial to veterans and their healthcare providers, and can also provide an important tool to better understand and treat this condition.”
A third project includes a national study to determine the current health status of veterans across the U.S. who served in the 1991 Gulf War. It will also establish an information and research network for veterans to receive periodic updates on health issues and connect veterans with scientists who are conducting health studies of Gulf War veterans.