VA Study Finds Link to Between Gulf War Service and Lou Gehrig’s Disease
In the federal government's first acknowledgement of a link between illness and service during the Persian Gulf War, military officials yesterday announced study results showing that veterans of the conflict are nearly two times more likely than other soldiers to develop amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the fatal neurological disorder also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, the New York Times reports. The joint announcement from the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs comes after years of debate over whether Gulf War service led to a series of "unexplained illnesses collectively called Gulf War syndrome" (Stolberg, New York Times, 12/11). While advocates for veterans have argued that the evidence for Gulf War syndrome is conclusive, until yesterday, the government had "not agreed that there is any scientific link" (Gillman, Dallas Morning News, 12/11). VA Secretary Anthony Principi said the department would "begin immediately" offering benefits and compensation to Gulf War veterans who later developed ALS. "The hazards of the modern-day battlefield are more than bullet wounds and saber cuts," he said.
In the study, VA researchers analyzed 700,000 military personnel who were deployed in the Persian Gulf between August 1990 and July 1991, and compared them to 1.8 million personnel deployed elsewhere at the same time. Forty cases of ALS were discovered among Gulf War veterans, a rate of 6.7 per million, while 67 cases among the former group were found, a rate of 3.5 per million. Accounting for age differences, researchers determined that Gulf War veterans were 18% more likely to develop ALS than the rate in the general population would predict, according to John Feussner, the VA's chief research and development officer. Principi noted that the study results were "preliminary" because they have not yet been peer reviewed (Walsh, Washington Post, 12/11). In addition, the Times reports that the epidemiological analysis proves a correlation, but not a causation, between Gulf War service and ALS, and the authors of the study "did not offer theories on why Gulf War veterans would be at increased risk" and did not say "what the odds were that the findings occurred by chance" (New York Times, 12/11). Two previous, but smaller, studies of ALS in Gulf War veterans were "inconclusive." But Principi said that the VA had decided to offer benefits based on the preliminary analysis because ALS is "fatal and rapidly progressive"; about 50% of the 40 Gulf War veterans identified with ALS have died, he noted (Washington Post, 12/11). Veterans with ALS "need help now, and we will offer them that help," Principi said (Meckler, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/11).
Veterans' groups were buoyed by the study results, saying they help to confirm their contentions that Gulf War service has led to a number of health problems, including ALS (Washington Post, 12/11). "It's just a shame it has taken so long," Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who has held hearings on veterans' health problems, said, adding, "There has been an incredible reluctance on the part of the Defense Department to acknowledge any gulf war illness. So I consider this a huge announcement" (New York Times, 12/11). Dr. Bill Winkenwerder Jr., secretary of defense for health affairs, said, "There's been a maturation of thinking about health risks associated with deployed military service" (AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/11). The study results also pleased ALS advocates and researchers, who said they might shed light on how environmental factors contribute to the rare disease, for which no cure exists. Feussner, the VA researcher, said the "next step" in the examination of ALS and Gulf War service is for scientists to "look to see if there is any cluster or anything these soldiers have in common that might give us a clue as to what the cause is" (New York Times, 12/11).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.