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Vets Who Served in Persian Gulf Are Sicker

Report more health woes than those not deployed to Mideast

MONDAY, May 13, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Veterans who served in the Middle East during the Gulf War have had more health problems after their return than veterans who served at the same time but were stationed elsewhere.

No one can say for sure, though, whether this disparity is due to what they did during the war, and where they did it.

Those are the findings of a new study in which Iowa veterans were polled about their health five years after their return from the war. Since the war ended in the summer of 1991, numerous researchers have focused on the question of whether the so-called Gulf War syndrome is reality.

In this latest study, researchers used a questionnaire to poll nearly 3,700 Gulf War-era vets. They asked the vets about general health status -- for instance, whether they could easily participate in physical activities, were in any physical pain, or had any emotional or mental health problems. They also asked about medical problems and health habits before joining the service.

Those who served in the Gulf had more health problems than those who weren't shipped out to the Middle East, the survey found.

"But the effect [on health] is relatively small," says Dr. Bradley Doebbeling, a professor of internal medicine and epidemiology at the University of Iowa and the senior author of the study, published in the current issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The finding that those who fought in the Gulf have more health problems later can't be linked entirely with their Gulf assignment, he adds.

The poorer health of the Gulf vets "is partially explained but not completely by individual risk factors not related to deployment, such as smoking and physical fitness and medical condition [before they left]," Doebbeling says. "What this shows is that deployment to the Gulf War does seem to associated with some decrease in the ability to function health-wise."

However, the researchers also found those who smoked cigarettes and were ill-trained and in poor physical shape before leaving for the Gulf were more likely to have health problems later. To Doebbeling, this is somewhat good news, because those are fixable risk factors -- people can always stop smoking or get in better physical shape.

While some studies have focused on a single unit of servicemen deployed to the Gulf, Doebbeling says the approach of comparing those sent to the Gulf with those who served at the same time but not in the Gulf makes more sense to him.

"This study is a careful look at what predisposes the vets to health problems later. If they had certain medical conditions beforehand, they were more likely to have them [later]," he says.

For another expert, the study triggers more questions than it provides answers.

"If the vets had health problems before [leaving], they might be more vulnerable to the stress there," says Lorna G. Cheifetz, a Phoenix psychologist with expertise in post-traumatic stress disorder. "It's hard to separate out all the factors. Any kind of physical, emotional, or chemical [exposure] stress can make you more vulnerable to physical and emotional problems."

Cheifetz wonders whether the problems of the servicemen would have gone away -- or, perhaps, if they may have stopped smoking -- without the stress of the Gulf War action.

Doebbeling and his colleagues, also from the University of Alabama and Duke University, will continue the studies, acknowledging the answers about the health effects of the Gulf War are far from complete.

What To Do: To find out more about Gulf War syndrome, try GulfLink, from the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses. You can also go to the Gulf War Veteran Resource Pages.

SOURCES: Bradley Doebbeling, M.D., professor, internal medicine, and co-director, Research Enhancement Award Program in Health Services Research, VA Medical Center, University of Iowa, Iowa City; Lorna G. Cheifetz, Psy.D., psychologist, Phoenix; May 15, 2002, American Journal of Epidemiology
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