Defence ministers were yesterday castigated by a cross-party committee of MPs for their "appalling" reluctance to investigate "Gulf War Syndrome" and a slow and inadequate response to hundreds of veterans who claim to be suffering from the illness.
The Defence Select Committee took the rare step of calling a press conference after its own year-long investigation, which concluded the MoD had been "quick to deny but to slow to investigate" the syndrome which, it is claimed, has affected more than 700 veterans and caused rare abnormalities to 40 Gulf war babies.
In a report that some members claimed toned down their outrage at the Ministry of Defence, the MPs unanimously dismissed ministers' claims of a lack of evidence to link Gulf service and reported illnesses as merely a reflection of the fact that they had carried out so little research.
The report claimed that the MoD's response stood in stark contrast to that of the US military authorities, which had launched a full epidemiological study and were already paying interim compensation to veterans. While the committee judged the US response "compassionate", it dismissed the MoD's response as reactive rather than pro-active and "characterised throughout by scepticism, defensiveness and general torpor".
The committee is demanding a comprehensive and properly funded MoD investigation into the illness, which some experts believe may be linked to the cocktail of anti-chemical and biological warfare drugs and immunisations administered to British and American servicemen and women in the Gulf.
Some have reported being immunised up to nine times in one day against a range of potential dangers, including anthrax and bubonic plague.
In the US, large numbers of Gulf veterans claim to be suffering from a range of symptoms, from severe weight and memory loss to chronic fatigue, dizziness and swollen joints. But there have been no reported cases among French troops, who did not receive the drugs or immunisations.
Menzies Campbell, a Liberal Democrat committee member, said the MoD had had to be "pushed, kicking and screaming" towards new initiatives. The Labour MP Bruce George, who admitted initial scepticism about the syndrome, was upset by the MoD's "cavalier" attitude and warned that if it did not respond positively to the report, Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, would be brought before the committee.
But Nicholas Soames, the Armed Forces Minister, attacked the report as "unhelpful and disappointing". He denied that the department had been complacent. "We retain an open mind on this issue."
Major Hilary Jones, who served in the Gulf for three months, believes that the illness that has since forced her to leave her post as a military nurse can be traced to the war. Once on a salary of pounds 25,000 a year, she is now surviving on benefits.
The committee singled out the drug pyridostigmine bromide. It found it "incredible" that the drug took 12 years to be fully licensed in Britain. "We are not convinced that the drug was adequately tested in the UK for use over long periods in the type of conditions prevalent in the Gulf."Reuse content