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Persian Gulf Illness Studies Include Look at Bacteria

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 17, 1996 – With scores of studies under way, DoD continues seeking answers to why thousands of Gulf War veterans suffer from a variety of symptoms collectively known as gulf war illness.

Defense health officials accept many veterans are sick, but they haven't pinpointed a single cause. Theories and explanations abound, blaming reported illnesses on everything from stress to enemy nerve gas. Now DoD also is considering the possibility some sort of bacteria may be the culprit.


"We have about 80 studies either under way, completed or on the drawing boards that look at a wide variety of possible toxins or ... reasons why people became ill during the gulf war," DoD spokesman Kenneth Bacon said Dec. 12 at a regularly scheduled press briefing. "Some do look at low-level chemical exposure. Others look at bacterial toxins and other toxins." Still other studies focus on medicines administered to gulf war participants and at the impact from oil well fires, Bacon said.


The possibility of a bacterial cause for reported illnesses surfaced in December when a West Coast newspaper reported the research efforts of Garth Nicolson. A research biochemist and scientific director of the nonprofit Institute of Molecular Medicine, Irvine, Calif., Nicolson tested the blood of hundreds of sick Gulf War veterans. Nicolson said his research revealed a genetically altered primitive bacterium -- called mycoplasma -- in many samples. He concluded the germ had been deliberately manipulated for use as a weapon, the newspaper reported.


Bacon said the findings aren't new. "We met with [Nicolson] in 1995 ... and before that as well," he said. "He was invited ... to submit a proposal for research which the government would fund, and a formal call for such a research proposal was issued in May of 1993." However, the Pentagon has yet to hear from Nicolson, Bacon said. In October, DoD launched its own study of mycoplasma infections in gulf war veterans. The study is scheduled for completion in August 1997.


Not all the studies are DoD-funded. The Department of Veterans Affairs, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other parts of the Department of Health and Human Services also are sponsoring studies, Bacon said, and universities under federal contract conduct some of the research.


"We continue to look at all the evidence," Bacon said. "We don't believe that Iraq used biological agents during the war [or] that our soldiers or other soldiers were exposed, but our mind is open. ... We have to keep working to look for every explanation of what's afflicting people who don't yet know why they're ill after the war."

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