US creates Gulf War illness panel after long delay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – More than a decade after the Gulf War, the US government launched a fresh initiative on Wednesday aimed at getting to the bottom of the unexplained illnesses experienced by an estimated one in seven veterans of that conflict.

The Bush administration announced the formation within the Department of Veterans Affairs of a 12-member advisory committee charged with sifting through medical research on Gulf War syndrome, some of which has been all but ignored by the government until now.

The committee includes critics of past government efforts, including Dr. Robert Haley, chief epidemiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

The panel will not conduct or fund research. It will review existing work and make recommendations to Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi about areas in which more work needs to be done and promote research that may lead to improved diagnosis and treatment of sick Gulf War veterans.

"There's been a lot of good work done in the past on this issue," said James Binns Jr., a Vietnam War veteran and former chairman of medical device maker Parallel Design Inc. "What's been missing has been a concentrated effort to pull it together and to understand it and to follow up on it," he added.

Many of the nearly 700,000 US Desert Storm troops say they suffer from conditions including pain in the muscles and joints, fatigue, nausea and balance problems. Their children also appear to have a higher risk of birth defects.

Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Leo Mackay said his department "is committed to investigating all possible causes and treatments for Gulf War illnesses." He noted that the panel was made up of people with "diverse viewpoints," including members of the medical and scientific communities and activists on the Gulf War syndrome issue.

Congress mandated the creation of the panel in 1998, but nothing was done in the final 2 years of the Clinton administration before President Bush took office 1 year ago.

The Department of Veterans Affairs last month said Gulf War military personnel apparently are nearly twice as likely as other veterans to develop amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The department said it would give additional benefits and compensation to veterans who served in the Gulf region during the war and later developed ALS.

This was the first official acknowledgment of a scientific link between Gulf War service and a specific disease.

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