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U.S. Links Gulf War to Lou Gehrig's Disease

Admits that vets at twice the risk of deadly disorder

TUESDAY, Dec. 11, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- In the first public admission that Gulf War vets might be at unique risk of illness, the government says soldiers stationed in the Persian Gulf during the conflict have double the normal risk of developing Lou Gehrig's disease.

The announcement, based on a new study, is an about-face for the government, which has until now denied any special health risk to Gulf War veterans.

Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Anthony Principi says that even though the link between Gulf War service and the fatal disease is preliminary, his agency will begin extending full benefits to afflicted soldiers and their families.

"We will compensate Desert Shield and Desert Storm veterans with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) -- and we will do so quickly," Principi says in a statement. "We will immediately contact those who were identified by the study and will help them to file new claims or prosecute existing claims -- and we will pay benefits retroactively to the date their claims are filed."

More than half the soldiers who contracted the rare, muscle-melting disorder as a result of their military service have since died.

Two previous studies that sought a connection between ALS and the Gulf conflict failed to find one.

The latest and largest effort was led by Duke University researcher Ron Horner. He compared the rate of ALS among 700,000 Gulf War vets deployed in the combat theater between Aug. 2, 1990 -- the day Iraq prompted the conflict by invading Kuwait -- and July 31, 1991, with the ALS rate among 1.8 million soldiers stationed at home or in other parts of the world during that time.

Horner, who is also an epidemiologist at the VA Medical Center in Durham, and his colleagues found 40 cases of the disease in the soldiers who served in the war zone when they expected only 33. And those veterans developed the illness much earlier than the typical age of onset, which is about 55.

While the odds of ALS varied among vets in different military branches, the overall rate was 6.7 cases per million for soldiers stationed in the Gulf, compared with 3.5 per million for others. "There was a statistically significant elevated risk, approximately two-fold, among those deployed to Southwest Asia versus those who stayed stateside or elsewhere in the world," Horner says.

Horner would not discuss specific findings of the $1.3 million study, which has yet to undergo peer review and is currently being considered for publication by a scientific journal. However, he did say the afflicted soldiers do not appear to have developed an unusual form of ALS.

Most cases of Lou Gehrig's disease -- its informal name comes from the New York Yankee baseball star who died of it -- are believed to result from the combination of genetic errors and cumulative exposure to environmental factors, such as chemicals and pesticides. About 15 percent of cases are thought to be inherited, and the vast majority of these occur regardless of environmental exposures, says Sharon Hesterlee, director of research development for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Hesterlee says the new research is the result of relentless pressure by veterans and their families, who refused to be satisfied by the earlier studies that failed to identify the source of their ailments.

Dr. Robert Haley, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas, who has doggedly pursued Gulf War syndrome, calls the latest finding "compelling" and says it agrees with a study he's been conducting.

"It's a very big milestone and a big departure from the past administration," says Haley. "This is a very strong acknowledgment that Gulf War service caused at least one brain illness. That suddenly switches the burden of proof" to the presumption that exposures during the conflict are behind other neurological diseases, too.

Haley says one culprit for the medical troubles of Gulf War vets might be exposure to nerve gas. He has also found evidence that contact with a mix of compounds, including pesticides, might be behind the broader symptoms of Gulf War syndrome.

While the VA and the Pentagon are acknowledging that the spike in ALS cases is likely service related, VA spokeswoman Kerri Childress says her agency isn't ready to say a Gulf War syndrome exists.

Still, Phil Kraft, program director of the National Veterans Services Fund, in Darien, Conn., calls the latest announcement "the tip of the iceberg as far as the Gulf War illnesses go" and expects more studies to confirm a connection between service in the Gulf and disease.

What To Do

The Muscular Dystrophy Association estimates that 30,000 Americans suffer from ALS. The disease is usually fatal within two to five years of onset. It has no cure.

For more on Lou Gehrig's disease, try the ALS Association or the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

To find out more about Gulf War syndrome, try GulfLink, from the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses.

SOURCES: Interviews with Ron Horner, Ph.D., director, VA epidemiologic research and information center, and research professor, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C.; Robert Haley, M.D., chief, epidemiology division, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas; Sharon Hesterlee, Ph.D., director of research development, Muscular Dystrophy Association, Tucson, Ariz.; Phil Kraft, program director, National Veterans Services Fund, Darien, Conn.; Kerri Childress, VA spokeswoman; statement from VA Secretary Anthony Principi
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