Scientific studies of illnesses reported by some veterans of the Persian Gulf War have been hampered by inadequate and scattered military medical records, an expert panel said Wednesday.
The panel concluded that lack of uniform health records for all troops who served in the war, including active duty soldiers, reservists and National Guard units, has blocked effective research. After the fighting, thousands of veterans reported a variety of symptoms that are sometimes referred to collectively as Gulf War Syndrome, and many studies have tried, unsuccessfully, to find the causes of the symptoms.
To prevent such problems in the future, the Pentagon needs to establish a modern, electronic medical records system, said a committee convened by the Institute of Medicine, a unit of the National Academy of Sciences. Such a record system would provide the kind of comprehensive health information that would be useful now in studying illnesses that may be associated with service in the Gulf War.
The panel, asked to assess current studies of the health of Gulf War veterans, said there were still questions about the completeness of information released by the Pentagon.
Dr. John C. Bailar III, the chairman of the 18-member committee, said in the preface to its report that the panel did not assess the recent Defense Department disclosure that up to 15,000 U.S. troops might have been exposed to chemical weapons agents when a weapons bunker was destroyed in southern Iraq at the end of the war. Such late disclosures, Bailar said, “continue to raise questions about the completeness of exposure information provided by DOD to date.”
In calling for complete disclosure by the military, the panel said even its members had difficulty identifying and tracking down some relevant Defense Department studies and reports because they were not published in open journals or indexed so they could be easily found.
The panel said that all scientific studies sponsored by the Defense Department or the Veterans Affairs Department should be published in open, peer-reviewed journals and that any proposed studies of health matters should be announced publicly and be open to review.
The committee said ample evidence showed that some veterans were genuinely sick with a variety of symptoms, most notably fatigue, headache, skin conditions, muscle and joint pain, and loss of memory or attention problems. But, it said, all these abnormalities were probably not caused by a single event.
Small, focused studies of groups of veterans that are under way or being planned probably are the best way to develop useful data, the panel said.