Cheap antibiotic 'relieves Gulf war syndrome'

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A Californian scientist who claims to have found the cause of Gulf war syndrome yesterday urged British GPs to begin prescribing an antibiotic to treat its victims.

Dr Howard Urnovitz, a microbiologist, told scientists in London that the antibiotic dioxycycline was effective in treating the condition which affects at least 4,000 British Gulf veterans and more than 70,000 in the US. The symptoms include chronic fatigue, sore arms, memory loss and blurred vision.

Dr Urnovitz said yesterday: "This antibiotic is doing a very good job of stopping the progression of diseases caused by Gulf war syndrome." Hethought of using it on veterans two years ago after it proved unsuccessful in people with HIV.

He said that British doctors were reluctant to use dioxycycline because of the six- to eight-week period before it takes effect. But he added: "It would be readily available for about pounds 5 a week and it does no harm."

One US victim of Gulf war syndrome, Sergeant Tom Hare, 34, has almost recovered and believes this is due to dioxycycline. When he returned from the war he was in a wheelchair, suffered blackouts, and had to sleep standing up for four years. His wife, Christine, who was also treated for the condition said: "Nothing would kill Tom's pain before this. I had different symptoms from my husband's and it's now controlling mine. As long as I take the dioxycycline, I'm fine. It's a very common antibiotic and no stronger than the stuff doctors prescribe for kids' acne."

But a British sufferer is sceptical about dioxycycline's prospects of success. Michael Kozak, who served on the ammunition ship Sir Tristram but has had to retire for medical reasons, suffered from heightened aggression, poor eyesight, lumps on his kidney, and memory loss after his return from the Gulf, said: "Given that everybody's genetic make-up is different, the antibiotic is going to affect everybody differently."

The US Senate has also urged caution, with a spokesman warning that many of the syndrome's viruses may be immune from the antibiotic.

Gulf war syndrome has been the subject of a dispute between veterans and the governments and military on both sides of the Atlantic since 1991. The US government's Centre for Disease Control acknowledged the seriousness of the problem only last year, while in Britain the Ministry of Defence refuses to accept that illnesses suffered by veterans are peculiar to the Gulf war.