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DoD, VA Study Finds Lou Gehrig's Disease in Gulf War Vets

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 21, 2001 – A large epidemiological study conducted by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs found preliminary evidence that Persian Gulf War veterans are nearly twice as likely as their non-deployed counterparts to develop Lou Gehrig's disease.

The disease, amyotrophic (am-ee-o-trow-phic) lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is often called Lou Gehrig's disease because the baseball star died from it. It's a fatal neurological disease that destroys the nerve cells that control muscle movement. Scientists don't know what causes ALS, and there is no cure for it.

DoD provided the lion's share of the money for the $1.3 million jointly funded study, which began in March 2000. The investigation involved nearly 700,000 service members who served in Southwest Asia during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm during the period Aug. 2, 1990 and July 31, 1991. More than 1.8 million service members who did not deploy to the Persian Gulf were also interviewed.

"We found 40 cases of Lou Gehrig's disease among veterans who served in the Gulf area -- almost twice as many compared to those who didn't serve in the gulf," said VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi. About half of the 40 veterans have died.

"These findings are of great concern and warrant further study," Principi noted at a Washington press conference earlier this month. "I intend to make certain that VA's medical resources and research capabilities are fully focused on this issue."

He emphasized that VA will compensate Desert Shield and Desert Storm veterans with ALS. "And we'll do so quickly," he said. "We'll immediately contact those who were identified by the study and will help them to file new claims or prosecute existing claims -- and we'll pay benefits retroactively to the date their claims are filed," Principi said.

VA is moving so fast because veterans who have contracted the disease can't wait for the peer review process to be completed, the secretary said.

"They need help now, and we'll offer it to them," he said.

Lou Gehrig's is a degenerative disease of the nervous system affecting the brain cells that carry impulses from the brain and spinal cord to the muscles. The disorder results in muscular weakness and the progressive wasting of muscles. The problem usually starts in the hands and arms and then spreads to other parts of the body. Patients eventually have difficulty speaking, swallowing and breathing.

Early symptoms include slight muscle weakness, clumsy hand movements and difficulty performing tasks that require delicate movements of the fingers or hands. Veterans afflicted with the disease can also experience weakness of the lips and impairment of the tongue, mouth or voice box. Other symptoms include uncontrollable twitching of muscles, stiffness in the legs, and coughing.

Death usually follows diagnosis within three to five years. VA health officials said even with the increased diagnosis among Gulf War veterans, the disease is extremely rare, affecting only about one in 25,000 people. Among Gulf War veterans, it's one in 17,500. There's no evidence about higher rates of ALS among other groups of veterans. However, researchers plan to explore the possibility in later studies, officials said.

VA is providing free medical care and disability compensation for veterans who have the disease. Officials urge veterans or family members who believe they qualify to contact their nearest VA medical center, regional office or benefits office.

Survivors of veterans who died from the disease are eligible for dependency and indemnity compensation, enrollment in VA's healthcare program for survivors, educational assistance and vocational assistance, among other benefits, officials said.

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Related Sites:
Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses 'GulfLINK' web site
Department of Veterans Affairs web site

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