Health Consequences of Service During the Persian Gulf War: Initial Findings and Recommendations for Immediate Action*
FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
In this report, the IOM Committee has attempted to highlight issues we believe would benefit from immediate action. In reviewing the large volume of documents and the progress of research currently underway, we have identified areas that need prompt attention. As the scope and extent of health problems of Persian Gulf veterans have appeared to expand, the social response also has grown. The committee believes that this has resulted in a fragmented attempt to solve these problems. Thus we believe that sustained, coordinated, and serious efforts must be made in the near term to focus both the medical, social, and research response of the Government and of individuals and researchers. Hence, the findings and recommendations that follow are offered with the intent to focus and sharpen the debate, and to improve the quality of the data, and thereby, scientific inference. Finally, we hope to impact in a positive way the health in persons who served in the Persian Gulf War, as well as in those who may follow in other military encounters.
Recommendations for immediate action follow based on the findings presented here and the background information presented in the next chapter. The recommendations are to be viewed as independent, and are not presented in any priority order within categories. The recommendations are divided into
three categories: data and databases, coordination/process, and considerations of study design needs.
DATA AND DATABASES
The VA Persian Gulf Health Registry is not a population database and is not administered uniformly, therefore, it cannot serve the purposes of research into the etiology or treatment of possible health problems. The Committee recognizes that certain tabulated descriptions of affected persons may legitimately be carried out for reasons other than the generation of scientific data. Specifically, there may be medical reasons for collecting information about patients with certain kinds of problems, especially diagnostic problems, particularly in medical settings where the information may be subjected to more intense scrutiny. An example is the establishment of the VA referral centers for Gulf War veterans. Since a limited number of veterans have been referred to these centers, and because the sample is self-selected, the Committee concludes that it is unlikely that productive scientific research (especially of an epidemiological nature) can ever be based on the data generated by the referral centers or the health registry as currently organized.
- The VA Persian Gulf Health Registry should be limited and specific to gathering information to determine the types of conditions reported. The role of this registry should be clearly defined as a means for identifying and reporting illnesses among Gulf War veterans with concerns about their health. There should be efforts to implement quality control and standardization of data collected by the registry from other VA facilities. The VA registry data should not be promoted or described as a means to determine prevalence estimates or identify the etiology of a disease, but should be reviewed promptly for enrollment trends and potential sentinel events.
- The VA should improve publicity regarding the existence of the Persian Gulf Health Registry, and encourage all concerned PGW veterans to be registered.
- Where possible the referral centers, standardized protocol should be used in each VA facility.
- The timeliness of data received from the VA Medical Centers (VAMC) to be entered into the PG Health Registry database needs to be improved.
No single comprehensive data system exists that enables researchers to track the health of Persian Gulf War veterans both while on active duty and after separation. As a result, it is not possible to conduct research and determine the morbidity and mortality experience of this population. Although both the VA and the DoD have medical records systems in place, they are inadequate and unlinked. This lack of a single data system is a hindrance to research concerning delayed health effects, both for Persian Gulf veterans and for those serving in future encounters.
• The Vice President of the United States should chair a committee composed of representatives from HHS, DoD, and VA to devise a plan to link data systems on health outcomes with the development of standardized health forms, the ability to access information rapidly, and an organized system of records for rapid entry into the data system.
The characteristics of the population at risk are critical to any definitive studies of Gulf War health effects. The DoD has taken the proper steps to enumerate and describe this population that will be part of the planned, but yet incomplete, Army Geographical Information System model.
- The DoD registry needs to be completed as quickly and accurately as possible.
- The Secretaries of DoD and VA should develop a single service connected health record, for each present active duty and former service member. All health data entries should be recorded in this single record for the individual.
The committee has noted with interest and some concern the wide variety of disciplines and expertise among persons who have considered possible causes of a mystery illness. It has appeared to the committee that some of these persons and organizations are simply not qualified to draw reasoned scientific conclusions, or to implement those conclusions by means of specific medical intervention. There may be substantial risk from inappropriate interventions because of adverse reactions to drugs, development of resistant strains of microorganisms, or especially the diversion of attention away from more orthodox diagnoses and treatments that hold some promise of relief from symptoms of a ''mystery illness."
- Decisions to provide funding, to refer patients, or to change usual operating procedures for providing financial support should be based on more solid scientific bases than has sometimes been evident in prior resource allocation. Funding should be subject to external peer review and approval.
There are dozens of studies of PGW health effects underway now, and many others are being initiated. Several efforts appear to be redundant, yet there are clearly gaps where research efforts are necessary. In its final report, the IOM Committee will recommend some additional specific research projects.
Presently, the total number of undiagnosed conditions is unknown because the data either are insufficiently understood or unavailable. Data that are available are fragmented, managed by different methods in different agencies, and based on a wide variety of unconnected rationales, from both military and civilian institutions. Many research efforts should, but do not, rely on a common set of data resources. Because so many unanswered questions remain concerning multi-system etiologies that have been proposed to explain undiagnosed signs and symptoms, all future as well as current evaluations must ensure that findings can be reconciled across studies.
- The Persian Gulf Veterans Coordinating Board (chaired by the Secretaries of VA, DoD, HHS) should actively coordinate all studies developed from any new initiatives that receive federal funding, to prevent unnecessary duplication and to assure that high priority recommended studies be conducted. These studies should undergo appropriate external peer review before, during, and after data collection and analysis.
- More staff should be assigned by the Persian Gulf Veterans Coordinating Board in order to monitor, collect, assemble, and make accessible when appropriate all relevant requested emerging data from studies now underway, and make periodic reports to the appropriate federal oversight authority.
- Each new initiative should be evaluated in the context of what it can contribute. That is, each new study should add something of value to the information already being obtained or accumulated.
CONSIDERATIONS OF STUDY DESIGN NEEDS
To date, most studies of PGW veterans have been piecemeal-one military unit here, one collection of volunteers with some problem there, etc. But, some of these studies have several fundamental problems. They are necessarily incomplete, they usually lack proper controls, they are hard to generalize, they are subject to grave statistical problems because of posthoc hypotheses and multiple comparisons, and where an effect truly exists they tend to have low statistical power to detect a difference. Thus, bits and pieces are not likely to answer any critical questions. The committee recognizes that an initial effort to survey a sample of veterans is underway, but more is needed.
Overall, there has been a broad and serious lack of adequate attention to the design of individual studies, and even more seriously, the scope and organization of an appropriate collection of studies, each focused on the resolution of a specific question. The committee regards this as a grave, though understandable failure. Experts in research design can and should work shoulder to shoulder with experts in the subject matter of each individual study; this is particularly true for work in epidemiology. A broader view of the whole collection of studies, including input from experts in subject matter and in research methods, persons knowledgeable about data sources and medical care systems, and those with general appreciation of public concerns and public policy, has been conspicuously lacking. We believe that good studies could be done, but that they will require substantial input from experts in epidemiological methods.
- The VA and DoD should determine the specific research questions that need to be answered. Epidemiologic studies should be designed with the objective of answering these questions given the input of experts in epidemiologic research methods and data analysis, along with the input of experts in the subject matter areas to be investigated.
- To obtain data on symptom prevalence, health status, and diagnosed disease, the Secretaries of DoD and VA should collaborate to conduct a population-based survey of persons who served in the PG, and of PG-era service personnel. The study should be designed to allow for adequate comparisons of outcome by sex, service branch, and rank, with oversampling among certain subgroups to allow for analysis. The IOM committee is willing to comment on and assist in the study design. An evaluation of the feasibility and need for a longitudinal study should take place coincident with this national survey.
Initial characterizations of smoke and unburned contaminants from the oil well fires and other sources are not adequate, nor have the data available been reduced to a format usable for drawing conclusions or conducting health studies. Considerable data exist from a wide number of sources, but they have not been compiled or analyzed in any organized or efficient way. For example, lead levels that would cause acute toxicity have been reported; however, questions about the validity of these reports have not been adequately addressed.
- DoD should assemble and organize these data from all sources for evaluation by the IOM committee.
- DoD should conduct a study that simulates exposure in tents heated by diesel fuel, with composition similar to that used in the PG. Fuels and conditions should simulate as closely as possible the conditions that existed in the PG. Exposure to lead and its possible effects should be explored further. The committee reviewed work done indicating that some personnel in the Gulf had lead levels consistent with acute intoxication. Thus in investigating lead exposure, special attention should be given to any history of abdominal pain or mental disorders.
As acknowledged by the investigator, the VA study of mortality in the PG veteran population is of insufficient duration to observe a higher rate of death than would be expected from chronic disease outcomes.
- The VA should plan and provide support for its mortality study to continue in the future in order to permit the detection and investigation of long-term mortality from chronic disease.
Although infertility, unrecognized and recognized pregnancy loss, premature delivery, fetal growth retardation, birth defects, and abnormal development are all components of reproductive health, studies and surveillance efforts to date have focused primarily on birth defects, fetal and neonatal deaths, and low birth weight. Adverse reproductive effects can be mediated through males as well as females, so it is important to study exposures of both parents. Information on infertility and miscarriage has not been included in the VA Health Registry efforts. Moreover, data on outcomes are available only from a single cluster study in Mississippi and the Army Surgeon General's preliminary data evaluation. DoD launched recently a study of reproductive health, and the VA and DoD clinical evaluation protocols provide some surveillance of infertility, miscarriage, birth defects, and infant deaths.
The design of scientific studies to address reproductive risk associated with environmental exposures is complex. A variety of endpoints may occur throughout the continuum beginning with fertility, through intrauterine, peripartum, and neonatal development, and continuing with effects manifested only later in childhood. Additionally, sophisticated expertise is required to document environmental exposures as the etiology for adverse pregnancy experience. There are research groups in some academic and federal settings that could, if deemed appropriate, conduct such complex research.
- VA and DoD should include reproductive outcomes among the array of health endpoints in surveillance programs based on medical records and individual questionnaires. Medical records, such as those to be included in the Seabees
- reproductive study and the DoD reproductive health study, would be suitable to ascertain stillbirth, low birth weight, preterm delivery, and major birth defects. Questionnaires such as those administered for the VA health registry exam could, in addition, address questions of infertility and clinically recognized miscarriage.
- The Persian Gulf Veterans Coordinating Board should consider specific exposures that are most likely to adversely affect reproductive health of women, men or both, distinguishing between agents that would affect reproductive health only if exposure occurred at or around the time of critical periods during pregnancy versus those that might have effects that would persist after the cessation of exposure. As specific hypotheses linking exposure and reproductive outcomes are identified, studies that are suitable to providing more conclusive results for those associations should be designed.
- The Persian Gulf Veterans Coordinating Board should remain alert but skeptical about cluster studies such as those underway in Mississippi. Studies of this kind may be valuable in suggesting etiologic hypotheses; however, they have little promise for resolving questions about links between experiences in the Persian Gulf and reproductive health. Population-based studies of reproductive health outcomes are essential to resolve questions of effects of Persian Gulf War service.
Women who did not realize that they were pregnant at the time were deployed to the Gulf; others became pregnant during their service in the Gulf. These groups of women may have been exposed to substances potentially hazardous to themselves and to their unborn babies. A study would permit comparisons of birth outcomes and potential adverse health effects on women exposed at different times in their pregnancies.
- The Persian Gulf Veterans Coordinating Board should conduct a study to compare women deployed to the PG who were or who became pregnant at any time during the Persian Gulf War with an appropriate group of other women who were pregnant, but did not serve in the PGW, to evaluate potential adverse health outcomes to the mother or child. This study should only be done if a sufficient number of women can be identified. Efforts should be made to gather exposure information relevant to service at potentially high-risk times during gestation.
The committee has become aware that rosters exist that contain the names of persons vaccinated with anthrax and botulinum toxoid.
- DoD should maintain its lists of those receiving anthrax and botulinum vaccines for the purpose of conducting follow-up studies on these cohorts.
Troops were given packets of pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills to be taken as a prophylactic to the threat of nerve agent exposure, at the direction of their commanding officer. PB by itself, in recommended doses, is a safe drug. Additionally, DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) and permethrin were used by the troops to prevent insect bites. There is some information about the possible long-term toxicity to humans of DEET absorbed through the skin; however there appears to be little or no information about dermal absorption of permethrin from residues left on clothing, bedding, or elsewhere. Although permethrin is generally not applied to skin, animal studies have shown that permethrin is transferred from cloth to skin, and subsequently absorbed (NRC, 1994). There is little information about how PB, DEET, and permethrin might interact; interactions among these compounds are possible and are inadequately studied.
- Studies are needed to resolve uncertainties about whether PB, DEET, and permethrin have additive or synergistic effects. Unsubstantiated suggestions that they may have chronic neurotoxic effects need to be tested in carefully controlled studies in appropriate animal models. Appropriate laboratory animal studies of interactions between DEET, PB, and permethrin should be conducted.
Reported symptoms suggestive of visceral leishmanial infections include fever, chronic fatigue, malaise, cough, intermittent diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss, anemia, lymphadenopathy, and splenomegaly. The committee has
considered two aspects of exposure to L. tropica and resulting infection with leishmania: the occurrence of either cutaneous or visceral leishmaniasis; and the possibility that some component of the poorly defined illness referred to as "Gulf War Syndrome" may result from leishmania infection.
Leishmaniasis (L. tropica) in PGW veterans has been evaluated in some very limited clinical studies, but not in epidemiological studies. The clinical studies suggest that the complex of symptoms in the PGW veterans diagnosed with leishmaniasis differs from what has been described in the literature for other forms of leishmaniasis. A major limitation to further investigation and diagnosis of leishmaniasis is the lack of an informative serologic test or other easy to use screening tests.
- The DoD Joint Technology Coordination Group II has research responsibilities for infectious diseases of military importance and should give high priority to the development of a screening approach to be used under field conditions expected in deployment, and a useful diagnostic test for L. tropica. The board also should review the status of leishmania research, with a view toward either drafting a request for proposals for test development, or the structured coordination of existing activities.
- All physicians should be notified to look for symptoms that are consistent with both leishmania infection and those reported as "Gulf War Syndrome" Clear instructions for follow-up actions should be widely communicated through the physician community. Veterans of Desert Storm should be notified that if they have symptoms that may suggest viscerotropic leishmaniasis they should bring this possibility to the attention of the staff at any facility where they obtain any health care, whether it is in the VA system or not. The latter may be particularly important due to the potential for long-term survival of leishmania in the host.
- When it becomes feasible, VA, DoD, or both should conduct an epidemiologic and seroepidemiologic study of leishmaniasis in PGW veterans presenting symptoms or conditions and appropriate controls. Special attention should center on a possible relation between leishmaniasis and the "Gulf War Syndrome."
The ecology and epidemiology of L. tropica are insufficiently studied. Many important questions remain unanswered concerning host species, vectors, and means of transmission to military personnel. The possible role of dogs as
reservoirs of disease and the existence of vectors other than sand flies are questions that have been raised.
- DoD should closely monitor all information regarding ecological and clinical studies of L. tropica being conducted in the U.S. and abroad.
- International and U.S. researchers should be queried concerning any advances in diagnostic techniques for identifying L. tropica.