Poor Records Impede Study of Gulf War Illnesses

WASHINGTON--Illnesses from the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf probably don't stem from a single cause, a committee of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded in a report released today. But the committee said it did not know what is responsible for the mysterious batch of nervous system ailments and other complaints lumped under the catch-all term "Gulf War syndrome." The IOM panel, citing shortcomings in the U.S. military's data, called for improved record-keeping on troop movements and health.

"The causes are not clear, and the biological mechanisms are not understood, but these veterans are sick and need diagnosis," says panel chair John C. Bailar III, an epidemiologist at the University of Chicago. The panel suggests that some symptoms may have a psychological cause. "It's important to get the cause right so we can get the treatment right," he says.

Recent news reports have claimed that as many as 15,000 soldiers may have been exposed in March 1991 to chemical weapons in Iraqi stockpiles. The revelations, which came to light after the IOM panel finished its work, do not alter the panel's conclusions, Bailar told Science. But they do highlight an urgent need for new studies on animal reactions to toxic chemicals and better epidemiological data, he says.

The panel's main task was to recommend improvements in military record-keeping. It found that immunizations, physical exams, and other records from separate military branches and special groups such as reservists and veterans are sometimes collated poorly and are not even computerized. "This is not just a matter of accommodating researchers," Bailar says. "We think medical care would also improve, because records would follow [patients] from place to place."