New Spoils of War

Desert Storm veterans still afflicted with Gulf War Illness

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The life of a soldier is one of serving their country and sacrificing more than anyone may know. A recent study shows the Gulf War Illness (GWI), which affects 25 percent of those serving in Desert Storm, appears to be related to their place of deployment and other tangible factors.

Those who served in the forward areas in Kuwait and Iraq are most likely to have GWI. These soldiers were given pyridostigmine bromide (PB)  to protect from the effects of nerve gas. For this group of soldiers who served as the first line of defense, GWI prevalence was 3.5 times greater when they used PB pills.

These forward-deployed soldiers who reported being near exploded SCUD missiles or smoke coming from the Kuwaiti oil fires and pesticide use also had a greater incidence of GWI. For other personnel not serving on the front lines, only pesticide use was significantly linked to development of GWI.

"Health issues linger for Desert Storm veterans."

Lea Steele, Ph.D., Baylor University epidemiologist and lead author of the study explains that figuring out the underlying causes of GWI has been a difficult problem to solve. Almost 700,000 US veterans were exposed to different combinations and levels of potentially dangerous substances.

Dr. Steele and her colleagues, via this study, have tried to determine which wartime exposures created the greatest incidence of problems for the veterans.

Dr. Steele, also a research professor of biomedical studies in the Institute of Biomedical Studies at Baylor reports that their study explains the combination of incidents and mechanisms that created the environment for development of GWI in the soldiers. The researchers have identifed three possible culprits:

  1. PB pills
  2. Pesticides
  3. Low-level nerve agents

All three are known to affect acetylcholine, a chemical involved in normal neurological and brain function. 

The study evaluated 304 veterans serving in Desert Storm, a campaign that included a four-day ground war and six-week air strike. This evaluation included deployment experience, health conditions and symptoms after deployment.

Symptoms of GWI include:

  • Pain throughout the body
  • Concentration problems
  • Memory difficulties
  • Chronic headaches
  • Digestive difficulties

These findings are published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 20, 2011
Last Updated:
September 30, 2011