October 7, 1996 in Nation/World

Virus May Be Tied To Gulf War Illness

Associated Press

A California scientist says he has discovered genetic material common to Gulf War-era veterans that could provide a clue as to why so many became sick after serving in the 1991 war.

Microbiologist Dr. Howard Urnovitz, in a study being presented Monday to a conference of Gulf War veterans in Tampa, Fla., said the genetic marker could point to the existence of a virus.

The virus, in turn, could make veterans exposed to chemical agents or other toxins more susceptible to illness, he said.

The report came as the Pentagon is under increased pressure from Congress and veterans’ groups to examine the extent of U.S. troop exposure to chemical agents housed in a large Iraqi weapons arsenal blown up in March, 1991.

The Pentagon denied until June this year that evidence existed showing Americans were contaminated by Iraqi chemical or biological weapons. It now acknowledges that up to 15,000 could have been exposed to the highly toxic nerve agent sarin and to mustard gas at the Khamiseyah arsenal in southern Iraq.

Urnovitz, in an interview with The Associated Press, stressed Sunday that what he has discovered are genetic sequences that may be related to the enterovirus family but not the virus itself. The large enterovirus family ranges from viruses causing the common cold to those causing polio.

“All we’ve done is connect a big dot,” he said. “We haven’t solved the puzzle.”

But he said his study could be “terribly important” if it leads to discovery of a virus that could have put Gulf War veterans at substantially higher risk of illness when exposed to chemical agents or other pollutants common to a war environment.

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