US cash for study of Gulf victims

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The Independent Online
The biggest study of the health of Britain's armed forces, paid for with $1m from the Pentagon, begins this week in an attempt to settle the question of whether Gulf war syndrome exists.

Questionnaires are being sent to more than 10,000 soldiers and former soldiers who served in the Gulf, in Bosnia and who stayed at home. The idea is to discover whether there was something specific about serving in the Gulf that caused soldiers to fall ill or whether those who served in other hostile environments such as Bosnia suffered similar ailments.

Last month, the Government declared a new spirit of openness in dealing with Gulf war veterans and announced new animal studies into the toxic effects of drugs given to servicemen. John Reid, the armed forces minister, spoke of the Government's debt of honour to those who served their country and pledged that any illness suffered by them would be sympathetically and thoroughly investigated.

However, the Ministry of Defence is resisting compensation claims in the absence of any hard evidence that a separate and distinct illness associated with service in the Gulf exists. Instead, the ministry is hoping to avoid admissions of liability by being generous with war pensions, giving claimants with health problems that may be related to service in the Gulf the benefit of the doubt.

The Pentagon-funded study is being led by two specialists in unexplained syndromes at King's College Medical school, London. It is being paid for by the United States government because no comparable epidemiological study, designed to reveal patterns of illness, has been possible in the US, which lacks a central system of medical record keeping. In the UK, the National Health Service provides the data required for the research.

Over 1,200 men and women who served in the Gulf have reported illnesses including cancer, chronic fatigue and memory loss. Although some are linked to combat stress many who are ill did not fight.

Professor Tony David, a neuropsychiatrist who is leading the study with Professor Simon Wessley, an expert in chronic fatigue syndrome, said the toughest task had been to design a questionnaire that servicemen and women would want to fill in. Payment was not allowed but the researchers will enter all returned questionnaires in a lottery with a pounds 1,000 prize.

Professor David said: "It is important that everyone who receives it fills it in. We have to find out what is going on. Neither the Pentagon nor the Ministry of Defence will control what we publish. We have complete academic freedom - that is written in stone."

The Pentagon, which has spent over $92m (about pounds 62m) on research in the US, is keen to learn about the experience of soldiers from other countries to see if there are lessons to be learned at home. An independent advisory committee appointed by President Bill Clinton found little evidence that exposure to chemical weapons or pollutants was the cause of health problems and concluded that the stress of combat was probably to blame.

The Medical Research Council is also about to start an MoD funded study of the incidence of abnormalities among children born to servicemen who served in the Gulf.