Head in the Sand

Gulf War Syndrome is real, but it's not chemical and it's not a conspiracy.

Published February 21, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

the basic question about Gulf War Syndrome has been resolved -- it exists. But the most likely cause is being overlooked or ignored. Despite escalating and well-publicized worries about chemical and biological weapons, poison gas or burning oil, it seems the probable cause of the vets' distress is a sand bug.

Several microorganisms commonly found in the deserts of the Middle East, carried by sand flies and other insects, are known to cause symptoms much like those that have brought complaints from veterans of the Gulf War.

Recently, investigations have focused on the possibility that allied soldiers were exposed to poison gases at the Khamisiyah weapons depot in Iraq. Yet only a small fraction of those suffering from Gulf War Syndrome were anywhere near that site.

In fact, many of the men and women who are ill never served on the ground in Iraq or Kuwait at all, but only in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, many of them served in Operation Desert Shield in late 1990, but were gone from the area before the air and ground fighting of January and February 1991. If these people, whose symptoms are considered to define the syndrome, were not in the combat zone, it is very difficult to see how their symptoms could be related to combat.

Where, then, should medical researchers look?

Evidence gathered by Dr. Katherine Murray-Leisure, an infectious disease expert at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Lebanon, Pa., and a dozen of her colleagues strongly suggests that microorganisms known to live in desert sands are the culprit.

These doctors studied 96 members of an Air National Guard unit that had been deployed at an air base in Saudi Arabia, far from the ground combat zone. Of these, 60 complained of being sick.

The investigators discovered that every one of the 60 had had extensive bare-skin exposure to the sand. They dug in it, bagged it, spread it, trained and slept in it. Only half the healthy vets had such exposure.

Those who worked in offices, closed quarters or villages and those posted on ships or other locations off the sand did not show signs of the illness.

What is in the sand? A variety of things, including some types of fungus that are heat-resistant, bacteria and perhaps unknown viruses, according to Murray-Leisure. There are also biting sand flies, fleas and other insects that may carry infectious microorganisms.

The doctors at Lebanon have a few clues, but no sure candidate. And they are finding it difficult to obtain the funds needed to pursue their inquiries.

Why is such a promising lead receiving so little public attention and financial support? Do people tend to ignore hypotheses that don't involve a controversy or a conspiracy, such as a "coverup" of poison gas exposure? Or are probers reluctant to pursue a lead that might suggest the military was negligent in failing to warn or protect the troops -- which would not only be embarrassing but costly in terms of disability benefits?

Whatever the answer is, Gulf War Syndrome veterans continue to suffer. They at least deserve to know why.

By David Zimmerman

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