The media is laboring mightily to convince the public that Gulf War veterans, along with their families, are suffering a horrible disease from exposure to something in the Mideast. It has been dubbed Gulf War Syndrome (GWS). Now Nightline has launched its salvo, this aimed at vets who are parents, in a segment on "Gulf War Babies."
Far from presenting a tight array of symptoms as recognized diseases do, the list attributed to GWS reads like the index of a self-help medical book. Three major studies, two from the Department of Defense and one sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, have found no connection between GWS symptoms other than that they occurred in Gulf vets. That there are health problems among Gulf vets reflects simple math: Among 700,000 people, over a period of four years, there will be some illness. All the evidence indicates that the amount of disease for these vets, other than stress-related illness, is no more than what should be expected.
Undaunted, the fearmongers, comprising demagogic congressmen, activists, veterans group lobbyists, and crusading journalists, have simply ignored these. "Thousands of miles apart, separated by the Atlantic Ocean," Nightline told us, "young American and British families grieve for their children who are dead, disabled, sick. These children have one thing in common; their fathers were all veterans of the Gulf War."
Again, the symptoms cover a vast range: from liver cancer to heart defects to earaches and rashes. Yes, if a civilians baby has a rash its a rash, but if a Gulf war vets baby has a rash its Gulf War Syndrome.
Still, Nightlines reporter made the alarming claim that, "In Waynesville, Mississippi, 13 of 15 babies born to returning members of a National Guard Unit were reported to have severe and often rare health problems."
Yes, reported and reported, but without substantiation. The Mississippi Department of Health investigated the alleged cluster and found that of 54 births to returning guardsmen in that state, there were three major defects, with two to four expected in a group that size. It also found four minor defects, with three to five expected. There were also no more premature or low birthweight children than would be expected.
A larger study of 620 pregnancies at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia also found defects and miscarriages among Gulf vets children to be at or below normal. In the Persian Gulf Registry of 17,000 veterans, the reported rates of miscarriage are below that of the general population. Meanwhile, a combined study of 6,392 pregnancies at several bases found Gulf vets wives miscarriages at the same level as that population had before deployment to the Gulf, and about half the civilian rate.
One of Nightlines guests was Sen. John D. Rockefeller 4th, Democrat of W. Virginia and outgoing chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Syndrome proponents have a number of pet theories on the specific cause of the illnesses, none of which have withstood scientific scrutiny. Rockefellers favorite is the drug pyridostigmine bromide, given to troops as "pretreat- ment" for possible nerve weapon attacks.
But the aforementioned NIH study noted this drug has been used by some patients for decades in doses of up to 6,000 milli- grams a day for life with "no significant long-term affects. By contrast, the troops received a mere thirty milligrams for up to three weeks." No birth defects have been associated with women who used the drug before or during pregnancy either.
None of which stopped Rockefeller from again invoking the drug, this time to explain defects in offspring.
Asked if there was a definite connection between Gulf War service and defective offspring, Rockefeller told Nightline, "If you were to ask as a human being, I would have to say absolutely.
If you were to ask me as a scientist, I would have to say we cannot yet prove there is a link."
Instead, at three different points he relied on the logical fallacy of "after this, therefore because of this." It is the bulwark of scare-of-the-weekism, as in "My wife began using a cellular phone and then developed a brain tumor, therefore the phone caused the tumor."
In this case Rockefeller said, "They were totally healthy when they went over to the Persian Gulf. No problems whatsoever. They come back and all of the sudden their children are [born] defective, they cant have children, or they [the children] die."
It wasnt sudden, of course. These problems have been spread over a four-year period. But heres a prediction. Even though Rockefeller is currently quite healthy, in the future he will die. Since he was healthy on Nightline but will have since died, the only possible conclusion to draw will be that the appearance on ABC killed him. I admit that as a science writer that sounds a bit attenuated, but as a human I have to accept it.
Meanwhile, where does that leave the Gulf War vets who tuned into Nightline or have been subjected to other miserable reporting on this subject? Dr. Russell Tarver, who led the Mississippi National Guard investigation, strayed from his data during an interview just long enough to offer an opinion. "I think its unconscionable to frighten people out of reproducing unless you have some good data to support that contention. I think youre committing a crime against those veterans."