Defence: Gulf War syndrome victims `may wait decades for cure'

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT unveiled a big research programme into Gulf War syndrome yesterday but warned that a cure could take "decades" to find.

Doug Henderson, the Armed Forces minister, announced that Britain would work with the United States military to discover the causes of illnesses suffered by thousands of soldiers who served in the conflict.

The joint US-UK research schemes will cover the effect of vaccinations against biological and chemical weapons and exposure to depleted uranium contained in missiles, as well as update medical records systems for both countries.

The Medical Research Council will work with the Defense Department to ensure that emerging research is shared between the two nations, while GPs are to be given updated advice on how to treat sufferers.

Announcing the initiative at the Defence Select Committee in the House of Commons, Mr Henderson said that solving the mystery of the illnesses suffered by 3,000 UK servicemen was a "top priority".

However, MoD officials revealed figures that showed the death rate among the armed forces who served in the Gulf was lower than that of the UK population as a whole for similar ages. Of the 53,000 men and women who fought in the conflict against Iraq in 1992, 387 had died. But an analysis of the wider UK population found that 479 would have been expected to die, from a range of causes.

Mike Tonnison, head of the ministry's Gulf Veterans Illness Unit, said the figures showed claims that more deaths had been caused "were not borne out by the evidence", although more research was needed.

Detailed research by Manchester University into the illnesses will be published later this year, but other studies into the reproductive health of veterans and the health of their children will not be available until late 2000, he said.

Mr Henderson said the history of disease showed that it could take "decades, sometimes centuries" before scientists had a found a treatment.

He added that it was important the research was thoroughly conducted, even if it had to proceed at a "slower pace" than the veterans wanted.

But Bruce George, the committee chairman, said victimswere frustrated and angry. "They can't wait 10 to 15 years to find out the situation. There is an element of urgency," he said.

Mr Henderson also said for the first time he was open to the suggestion that the UK take on board studies of French troops who served in the Gulf. French soldiers were not vaccinated as widely as their US and UK counterparts and have suffered few illnesses.