Gulf-war syndrome lawyers plan own tests

Outside experts set to counter official foot-dragging
Lawyers co-ordinating compensation claims by 1,000 Gulf war veterans are planning their own medical testing programme in the face of government refusal to release medical records and full information on drugs given to the troops.

The two firms appointed by the Legal Aid Board to act as lead solicitors say experts they consulted reported that so-called Gulf-war syndrome could have been caused by a combination of vaccinations, anti-nerve-gas tablets and exposure to organosphosphate pesticides, which Nicholas Soames, the armed forces minister, admitted last Friday had been used in the region. Aided by scientists, the two firms, Dawbarns of King's Lynn, Norfolk, and Gill Akaster of Plymouth, are in advanced stages of designing a representative study of 20 veterans, including at least one who has a child with birth defects, and 20 comparable "controls", who did not go to the Gulf. The subjects will have blood and nerve-conduction tests.

The lawyers say some veterans have been removed from their doctors' lists because of lack of information about the cause of their illness and many have been told their conditions are psychological rather than physical. Gulf-war syndrome symptoms include musculo-skeletal and nervous-system disorders, intestinal problems, chronic fatigue, damage to the immune system, rashes, repeated infections, liver and kidney damage, memory loss and personality change.

The lawyers have also called on the Ministry of Defence to say whether soldiers were given adjuvants, which can help produce an immune response but which can have side-effects. Troops were also given biological-warfare vaccine, the constituent parts of which have not been revealed, and took pyridostigmine bromide tablets, to protect against nerve-gas.

Richard Barr, a Dawbarns partner, said tests by Mohammed Abou-Donia, professor of toxicology at Duke University, North Carolina, showed pyridostigmine bromide has a synergistic effect when combined with organophosphates. In the case of organophosphates, toxicity may be magnified tenfold.

Another US immunologist warned of magnified toxicity caused by pyridostigmine bromide or pesticides on an individual whose immune system has been stimulated by multiple vaccination.

Armed with growing evidence of links between substances given veterans and their subsequent illnesses, an immunologist, toxicologist, neuro-physicist, cardiologist and endocrinologist will be appointed to carry out the study.

The lawyers contrast their planned study with Medical Research Council work, details of which are to be given next month. The lawyers suspect it will be epidemiological and take another 18 months before individual cases are selected for detailed examination. They also fear that when compensation cases reach the courts, ministers will try to claim public- interest immunity for crucial papers.

Mr Barr said: "We are hampered by lack of information. It is not simply ... litigation. It is a question of providing help to cure hundreds of sick people. It does seem stupid for public money to have to be spent on investigation when, with more co-operation, one could get much further down the line in finding out about this illness. It is all government money, anyway."