April 3, 2009:
Over two years ago, the American National Academy of Sciences (NAS), acting at the behest of Congress, completed its study of the "Gulf War Syndrome" and found that the condition does not exist. What does exist is a large number of illnesses resulting from Americans visiting an area containing many diseases and dangerous conditions that are unfamiliar to science and American medical practitioners. Similar situations occurred every time U.S. troops went to exotic locales in the past. It happened during the Spanish-American War (1898) and World War II (for troops in the Pacific, North Africa, the Persian Gulf, India and so on.)
Research continues, because the region is rich in toxic materials (both natural and manmade). One of these recent efforts, after doing brain scans of 21 Gulf War vets with the Syndrome symptoms, found that there appeared to be brain activity changes as a result of exposure to three chemicals (Sarin nerve gas, insect repellent, and anti-nerve gas pills) in the Gulf. Some troops were exposed to very low levels of nerve gas, when shells containing the substance were destroyed. The insect repellent was found in flea collars that some troops wore to deal with the sand fleas. The anti-nerve gas pills were given to most troops to counteract the effects of nerve gas (if they were exposed.) In various combinations, these three chemicals apparently an produce the most common Gulf War Syndrome symptoms. But this was a small sample, and it's known that the Persian Gulf is full of nasty stuff.
Over thirty years ago, the Department of Defense did a medical study of the Persian Gulf area, as part of the effort to form a Rapid Reaction Force for possible intervention in the region. In addition to a large number of known diseases and potentially dangerous bacteria, there appeared to be a lot of unknown ailments out there. Local medical personnel were treating a lot of diseases, never seen outside the Persian Gulf area, with whatever medicines they could get their hands on. Historians can point out a similar situation when U.S. troops went into North Africa and the Pacific during World War II. While many of these local diseases are of academic interest back in the United States, little is done to develop cures or preventive measures. The treatments developed during war time are filed away. Many have since been hauled out of storage, as some American troops served in the Persian Gulf during World War II. Even though many Americans have been there since 1991, new ailments are constantly being discovered. The Persian Gulf area is not only rich in oil, but in disease as well.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq exposed more U.S. troops to this unhealthy climate, and generated more complaints about a "Gulf War Syndrome." The problem is that, when medical records are examined, no single disease or condition can be found. Instead there is the same, somewhat unpredictable, array of little know diseases. When several of these hit someone at once, they produce more unfamiliar conditions.
The "Gulf War Syndrome" controversy is driven largely by the media. Unfamiliar with the past history of such diseases, or simply unwilling to pay attention, editors and journalists instead go with unsubstantiated, but headline grabbing, inventions. There is a "Gulf War Syndrome", but it's got more to do with bad journalism, than with medical mysteries.