November 18, 2008 – GWEN IFILL: Now, Gulf War illness and its various causes.
It has been 17 years since the first Gulf War ended. A new report now finds that at least one in four veterans of that conflict have been suffering ever since.
In 2002, a congressionally mandated panel set out to get to the bottom of conflicting reports about the veterans’ health complaints. Its 450-page report concludes that Gulf War illness, memory loss, digestive and neurological problems, fatigue and pain is a real disease.
More than 175,000 veterans of the war were affected, but not effectively treated.
The two most likely causes: drugs administered to guard against nerve agents and pesticides used in the battlefield.
For a closer look at what these findings mean, we turn to James Binns, the chairman of the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses.
JAMES BINNS, Chair, Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses: Thank you for having me.
GWEN IFILL: So we have heard a lot about illnesses which arose from war, veterans who complained about Agent Orange for years before it was considered to be an actual treatable illness or untreatable illness. What’s different about this?
JAMES BINNS: Well, the Gulf War had its own set of unique exposures. As Vietnam veterans were exposed to Agent Orange, so Gulf War veterans were exposed to a number of toxic exposures that were unique to that war.
And what this report has been able to do is to separate out which ones were truly causes as opposed to others which turn out not to be.
What this report has been able to do is to separate out which ones were truly causes as opposed to others which turn out not to be.
Dangerous exposure to chemicals
GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about the toxic exposures. We’ve heard a lot, for instance, about the smoking oil wells and the explosion of various munitions plants and soldiers were downfield from that. What was unique about the Gulf War illnesses or about the circumstances of the Gulf War?
JAMES BINNS: Well, the two exposures that our study has found to be the most connected in terms of causes that jump out at you when you look at all of the studies — and I should say that what’s different about this report from earlier studies is that we looked at all of the literature, animal and human studies, government reports…
GWEN IFILL: How many studies would you say there have been done on this?
JAMES BINNS: There are 1,800 references to this report. You can see that it’s a very thorough document.
And what we found is that the pills you mentioned — pyridostigmine bromide is the technical term for them — which were given to the troops to protect them against nerve gas attack and pesticides, which were also used with the best of intentions to protect the troops from the insects, which carry infectious diseases in that part of the world, regrettably turn out to have been alone or in combination the major factors that we can point to on the basis of the scientific studies that have been done.
Now, some of the other causes, possible causes that you mentioned we do not rule out. Low-level nerve gas exposure, there is considerable evidence that this can cause illness and brain injury, injury to the nervous system.
What we don’t have as good data on is, how many troops were really exposed? So we can’t say with the same degree of certainty. The same goes for oil well fires. We do identify both of those as exposures which can’t be ruled out or in.
Many other exposures that were also happening in the gulf at that time, depleted uranium munitions, anthrax vaccines, special paints and solvents that were used, we do say that the evidence does not show that they were significantly connected.
I heard one of the veterans yesterday call this a bittersweet moment for them, because in large measure all of this work simply confirms what they know, that they are ill and have been for 17 years.
‘A bittersweet moment’
GWEN IFILL: It seems like, as you document in the report, in the ways that this has been manifested, the headaches and the digestive problems, that could have been caused by any number of things over time. So was there any way or has there been any way to treat this collection of symptoms if this hasn’t been declared its own syndrome until now?
JAMES BINNS: Now, that’s what’s — I heard one of the veterans yesterday call this a bittersweet moment for them, because in large measure all of this work simply confirms what they know, that they are ill and have been for 17 years.
And it’s true what you say that actually very little of the research that has been done up to date has been oriented toward treatments, and none of it has found effective treatments.
GWEN IFILL: So that means that none of the people who have been suffering these symptoms all these years has really gotten better.
JAMES BINNS: The studies actually show that I think 2 percent have gotten completely better.
GWEN IFILL: Two percent.
JAMES BINNS: And 8 percent in this large study said that they had some improvement, but 15 percent were worse. So most people have not had much improvement.
GWEN IFILL: How is it that these dots haven’t been connected before now?
JAMES BINNS: Well, ours is the first committee. And as you may have mentioned, we were chartered by Congress, that is to say, Congress mandated that V.A. appoint this committee.
I have to give credit to Secretary Principi for appointing a very able and independent-minded group of scientists to sit on the committee.
GWEN IFILL: And veterans, as well, right?
JAMES BINNS: And veterans, as well. Yes, there are — about a third of the committee are veterans.
And we also have the benefit of the time that has passed since the — it’s now 17 years, so we have a great deal of literature to review. And we had no constraints placed upon us.
We could, as I said, look at the full scope of all the literature, whereas some of the earlier studies, such as by the Institute of Medicine, were confined to only a portion of the literature.
Financing the research
GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about money. The Department of Defense has cut its — the money it has set aside for this kind of research into Gulf War illnesses from $30 million five years ago to $5 million now.
JAMES BINNS: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: Is part of what you’re suggesting here that more money should be spent on more research?
JAMES BINNS: Very definitely, but in this case research focused on treatments. This is what every panel, not only ours, has put as the top priority. And yet, as we just discussed, very little of the research has gone into treatments.
So we would like to see the Department of Defense research raised back to the levels that were being used in the period prior to the current war. Sadly, like many programs, the veterans of the last war have been forgotten in the current war and in the current media. We appreciate your interest in…
There are important consequences that we think should come out of this report. One is to review and revise the instructions that V.A. doctors are given and how to treat Gulf War veterans.
Claiming veterans’ benefits
GWEN IFILL: We are interested. But tell me, if you’re a veteran and you’ve been suffering from these symptoms, and it’s now — there’s now a report that says — that gives a name to which you’ve been suffering for, do you then go back to the [VA] and say, “I want to claim my benefits for all these years that I’ve been denied benefits for this condition”? Is that even doable?
JAMES BINNS: Well, we are not ourselves charged with benefits regulations. However, there are important consequences that we think should come out of this report. One is to review and revise the instructions that V.A. doctors are given and how to treat Gulf War veterans. They are still working with guidelines written eight years or more ago, when this was viewed as a psychological problem.
GWEN IFILL: Which is something you expressly rule out.
JAMES BINNS: Exactly. This finding, it is the clearest finding of all in this report, is that this is not caused by battlefield stress. We certainly don’t rule out battlefield stress as an important cause of illnesses in the current war, but in this war, that wasn’t the case.
The war, as you may recall, lasted only four days. And as wars go, it was much less stressful than most. And the level of PTSD in this war is very low.
So we would first hope that the guidance to V.A. doctors would be revised to reflect current research. We would also recommend and have recommended in the report that the research reports by the Institute of Medicine, which have been done on Gulf War illness and which are related to benefits, be redone to reflect the guidance that Congress gave to the V.A. in the legislation that required those reports.
GWEN IFILL: OK. James Binns, thank you for your report. Thanks for joining us.
JAMES BINNS: Thank you very much for your interest.