Gulf War Illness: 10 Years Later
Veterans Deployed to Persian Gulf Have More Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia
June 6, 2005 -- Ten years after the end of the 1991 war with Iraq, the
physical health of veterans who served in the Persian Gulf was similar to that
of veterans who served elsewhere, with several notable exceptions, a new study
Gulf War veterans were more likely than veterans who served outside the Gulf
to have chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. The two conditions share
many of the same symptoms with what has come to be known as Gulf War syndrome,
including fatigue, joint and muscle pain, chronic headache, and memory
But researcher Seth A. Eisen, MD, tells WebMD that the overall message of
the U.S. Veterans Affairs Administration study is positive. "In the vast
majority of veterans who participated in this study, we did not identify any
health differences between those who served in the
Gulf and those who didn't 10 years later," he says.
Illness Common After War
Approximately 700,000 U.S. servicemen and women served in the Persian Gulf
during the 1991 war with Iraq. While combat casualties were low, reports of
illness following the war's end were common.
The scientific evidence in favor of a distinct medical syndrome associated
with serving in the Gulf War has been mixed, however.
In this latest study, VA researchers examined the prevalence of 12 different
medical conditions among 1,061 Gulf War veterans who served in the Persian Gulf
and 1,128 veterans who served at the same time but were not deployed to the
Gulf. The findings are published in the June 7 issue of the journal Annals
of Internal Medicine.
Between 1999 and 2001, physicians and research nurses at 16 VA medical
centers took detailed medical histories and performed physical examinations on
all of the study participants. The average age of the veterans who participated
in the study was 40 at examination; roughly one in five of them were women and
four out of five were white.
Conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, hepatitis, and obstructive
lung disease were no more common among the Gulf-deployed veterans than among
those not deployed to the Gulf. But those who served in the Gulf were 40 times
more likely to have a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome, even though
overall the rate of the disorder in both groups was small. Just over 1% of
deployed veterans had chronic fatigue syndrome, compared with 0.1% of
The deployed veterans were twice as likely as nondeployed veterans to have a
diagnosis of fibromyalgia, almost twice as likely to experience frequent
indigestion, and 40% more likely to have skin rashes.
Obligation Isn't Being Met
In an editorial accompanying the study, Harvard professor of medicine
Anthony Komaroff, MD, wrote that it is now clear that veterans who served in
the 1991 Gulf War have a higher incidence of chronic fatigue syndrome and
fibromyalgia, but it is still not clear if the symptoms "constitute a
There are many theories about the potential cause or causes of Gulf
War-related illness. Some say they are a reaction to the battery of
immunizations given to service people before they were deployed. Others say
that accidental exposure to some of Saddam Hussein's stockpiles of nerve gas is
But Komaroff tells WebMD that the answer may never be known because little
effort was made to track immunizations or chemical exposures during the
"A country that sends its young people to war has an obligation to study
all illnesses that occur in the aftermath of war, not just traumatic
injury," he wrote in his editorial. "An illness like the Gulf War
syndrome has been chronicled in every armed conflict since the Civil War, yet
no systematic attempts have been made to understand it. Our armed forces
deserve far better. Whatever the cause, the suffering is real."