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ECU researchers seek clues about and treatments for Gulf War illness

By Doug Boyd
ECU News Services

In the 1991 Gulf War, Troy Bundy was part of a U.S. Army unit sent to destroy the Iraqi weapons storage facility at Khamisiyah.

Explosives set by a demolition crew blasted smoke and fire into the sky, creating what some described as a “mushroom cloud.”

“We all stood back and watched the cloud go up,” says Bundy, now a general contractor who lives in the Martin County community of Farm Life. “The next thing you know, the stuff just started landing around us. We crawled up under the Jeep to get out of it.”

The Army thought the facility contained only conventional munitions. The military later determined it housed sarin gas.

“Nobody checked it,” Bundy says. “They just blew it up.”

Today, Bundy thinks he might be feeling some of the effects from that blast and all the pills and shots he was given to fend off the effects of chemical and biological weapons during the war.

An aerial photograph taken on March 1, 1991, of the Khamisiyah Ammunition Storage Complex in Southern Iraq showing a destroyed bunker (lower left).
That’s why researchers at East Carolina University are studying the causes of Gulf War illness and medicines that might be able to treat it. In addition to performing controlled trials of the pharmaceuticals, the ECU team will study inflammation markers in the blood to see if a diagnostic test for the mysterious illness can be developed.

Dr. William Meggs, a medical toxicologist and professor of emergency medicine at the Brody School of Medicine at ECU, is leading the $1.1 million study. Kori Brewer, a neurophysiologist at ECU, is a co-investigator studying blood tests that could aid in the diagnosis of Gulf War illness.

The study was scheduled to end this year but will continue through 2015 as Meggs wanted to recruit more veterans to participate. He expects to publish his findings in an academic journal next year.

Gulf War illness is the name given to the chronic fatigue, chronic pain, difficulty with mental tasks and other symptoms suffered by some who served in the war and its aftermath. It affects almost one-third, or about 250,000, of the veterans who served in the war, according to the federal Institute of Medicine.

Meggs says the illness is thought to be related to toxic exposures in the war zone, and the study aims to further the research into the effectiveness of generic drugs that control brain inflammation that might have been triggered by neurotoxin exposures. Of 301 veterans interviewed by researchers about their experiences in the war, 46 who developed symptoms of Gulf War illness are participating in the study. They come from North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee.

The study is funded by the Department of Defense.

On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait. Within five days, the United States had begun to deploy troops to Southwest Asia. U.S. and coalition forces began air attacks on Jan. 16, 1991; the ground war began Feb. 23. Five days later, combat ended. The last troops to participate in the ground war returned home that June, and oil-well fires set by retreating Iraqi forces were extinguished by November 1991.

While the operations were considered successful, with few battle injuries and deaths, veterans soon began reporting numerous health problems that they attributed to the war. The unexplained symptoms included fatigue, muscle and joint pain, loss of concentration, forgetfulness, headache, respiratory complaints, rashes, sleep disturbances and gastrointestinal distress.

Bundy joined the Army after graduating from Williamston High School in 1987 and left the service in 1991 after serving with the famed 82nd Airborne in Iraq. He has talked with other Gulf War veterans and followed what they say about their health on websites and in social media. He sees some similarities with his own health.
Todd Bond, who served in Iraq in 1991, has experienced memory loss, anger issues and fatique. He believes the symptoms are related to his Gulf War experiences.
“I don’t go to the doctor when I’m sick,” he says. “I work through it. But I know I have had a lot of joint pain and gastrointestinal issues and headaches. It seems to be connected to what they have. It’s very consistent.” He added that his symptoms don’t limit his activities.

Immediately after the war, Gulf War illness was attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder. Others claimed that it was a psychological illness. Ross Perot, the billionaire and former presidential candidate, funded the first serious investigation of it.

The Department of Veterans Affairs then founded a research advisory committee to direct research efforts on the illness. Meggs was asked to serve in 2002. On this committee, he developed a deeper knowledge of the illness, met many Gulf War veterans and formulated an approach to the illness.

Research shows those serving in the Gulf War had exposures to sarin nerve gas from Scud missiles and demolition of ammunition dumps containing it, such as at Khamisiyah. Neurotoxic insecticides chemically similar to sarin were used to spray tents to control sand fleas. Troops also received a drug to prevent sarin from binding irreversibly at nerve junctions but that has similar toxicities.

Troops were also exposed to smoke from oil well fires in Kuwait, depleted uranium, multiple vaccinations and oil sprayed on the sand in camps to reduce dust.

Studies have found a higher prevalence of symptom-reporting in Gulf War veterans than in nondeployed Gulf War-era veterans or other groups, the IOM noted. The symptoms veterans report don’t often point to an obvious diagnosis, cause or specific treatment, complicating efforts to determine whether a unique syndrome exists.

In addition, the war was nearly 25 years ago, and many veterans have developed other illnesses. Treatment for those complicates treatment for their Gulf War symptoms, says ECU researcher Allison Mainhart.

Todd Bond, who was an Army private when he served in Iraq in 1991, says he began noticing unusual symptoms about five years ago, including memory loss, anger issues and fatigue. During his service, he says, he was given a pill to take every day to ward off dangers such as chemicals and pollutants.

“Yes, I definitely think it is real,” he says. Although he’s been working to get in better physical condition, he still feels tired and thinks his Gulf War experiences might have something to do with it.

“I just can’t put my finger on it,” he says.