Health: MoD launches website for sick Gulf War veterans

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The Independent Online
The Government yesterday launched a new Internet service for victims of Gulf War illnesses. Ian Burrell reports that the move is partly a response to serious problems with official studies into the causes of the sickness.

Dr John Reid, the armed forces minister, promised yesterday that "every piece of information that is revealed to me" will be released to the sick veterans on the new website, which went on line last night.

The minister is anxious to send a message to the veterans that the Ministry of Defence is doing everything it can to try and identify the cause of the illnesses as quickly as possible.

He added: "What I cannot do is play God and just invent a cause when there is no known cause."

The new Gulf Veterans' Illnesses website is an attempt to rid the MoD of accusations that it is involved in a cover-up. It will offer details of the MoD's medical assessment programme and reports on the various pieces of research which have been commissioned into the many possible causes of the illness, including vaccines, pesticide sprays and chemical weapons.

But behind the launch of the site lies a serious problem. Dr Reid admitted yesterday that researchers involved in major epidemiological studies into the prevalence of the illnesses are having great difficulty in getting sufficient numbers of veterans to take part.

The minister said: "[The problems] are serious. There are difficulties with us getting names and addresses." He added that as a result of the problems the studies had fallen behind with their schedules.

Two British funded epidemiological studies are being carried out by the University of Manchester and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The Manchester team aims to contact 10,000 veterans and the London study is seeking responses from all 53,000 who served in the campaign, of which 25,000 are still in the services.

The researchers are sending out 5,000 letters a fortnight in an effort to get a greater response.

An American-funded epidemiological study is being carried out at King's College School of Medicine in London. Veterans' groups had warned that many would not co-operate with the research when it was announced in 1996.

Last weekend, a contingent of veterans marched on the MoD to hand back their campaign medals in a protest that too little was being done to help their plight.

Dr Reid said that he was saddened by the protest but could not agree to calls made by MPs for a no-fault compensation scheme to be set up paying each sick veteran a fixed amount.

He said: "To do so would be grossly unfair to everyone else who has served their country and then become ill without knowing the cause of the illness."

The Web address is www.mod.uk/gulfwar/gvi.htm.

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