With Gulf War Syndrome, No Disease Is No News

January 01, 2000  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Bridge News  ·  Gulf

Call it "A Tale of Two Studies," one celebrated and one ignored.

Both concerned Gulf War Syndrome (GWS). The first received tremendous media coverage, though it only involved a handful of vets, was privately funded by somebody with an agenda, was conducted by people on a research gravy train, and was merely announced at a meeting.

The second was utterly ignored, though it involved a huge number of vets, was publicly-funded, involved myriad researchers from all over the country, and appeared in the prestigious, peer-reviewed American Journal of Epidemiology.

Why the difference? Study One purported to show the existence of Gulf War Syndrome (GWS), while Study Two showed conclusively that the term "GWS" is worthless, meaning nothing more than any illness, ache, or pain any Gulf vet or vet’s spouse or child has contracted in the eight years since the war.

The first study study appeared under such titles as "Gulf War, Brain Damage Linked" (Associated Press), "Gulf War Vets Show Brain Problems," (United Press International), "Study of Ill Gulf War Veterans Points to Chemical Damage," (New York Times), and "Gulf War Syndrome Tied to Brain Damage (USA Today).

Released at a Chicago meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in December without benefit of the least amount of critical evaluation, it purportedly showed that brain scans of sick Gulf vets indicated 10-25 percent lower levels of a certain brain chemical than healthy Gulf War veterans.

"This is the first time ever we have proof of brain damage in sick Gulf War veterans," said the lead researcher, Dr. James Fleckenstein, a radiology professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

"Ahm H. Ross Perot and I never met a conspiracy ah didn’t cotton to. And ahLOVE Gulf War Syndrome!"

Actually, you practically have to be brain-damaged to believe the study proves anything other than the gullibility of the media. Why?

  • It wasn’t published anywhere. Instead it was disseminated as an abstract of a few hundred words. Certainly urgency didn’t play a part, considering the alleged exposures were eight years ago. So why not let it be viewable in print? Why not let editors have a go at it, or peer reviewers? What were the authors afraid of?
  • The study was partly underwritten by Mr. Conspiracy Theory himself, H. Ross Perot. Perot has been funding efforts to "prove" GWS for years, most at Southwestern Medical Center. Curiously, wherever Perot money goes, a positive GWS finding results.
  • It involved merely 22 sick vets and we don’t know how they were chosen. Meanwhile, there were only 16 control subjects to measure them against and all of them were Gulf vets themselves. Thus the study didn’t compare Gulf to non-Gulf vets; it merely compared those who felt sick to those who didn’t. Thus, it couldn’t possibly prove the existence of any syndrome unique to service in the Gulf.
  • There was no exposure evidence for those 22 vets. All we know is they were in the Gulf around the time the war was fought. As one expert, Robert Roswell, chairman of the Persian Gulf Coordinating Board later observed, "No one’s ever demonstrated any specific exposure among Gulf War veterans that could cause this kind of change in the brain."
  • Finally, no one else has ever made such findings before.

In short, on a scale of one to ten in value, this study was about a minus three.

Now what of the American Journal of Epidemiology study?

It found that among hospitalized veterans, Gulf War vets are suffering no more illness than veterans who didn’t deploy to the Gulf theater. The study included almost all Gulf vets (about 650,000 here), plus 650,000 non-deployed vets as comparisons. For the mathematically-impaired, that’s slightly more than 22 plus 16.

Further, it looked at vets treated in three different hospital systems: Department of Defense (DoD), Veterans Affairs (VA), and hospitals in California.

U.S. Navy and VA officials evaluated these people for everything from cancer to heart disease to mental disorders to skin diseases for a total of 14 problems in all. Yet of the 14 categories among the three sets, they found statistically significant increased problems in only five of the 42 "slices" of the data. Conversely, they found significantly decreased problems in 11 of the slices.

Bottom line: If anything, the Gulf vets were healthier than those who didn’t deploy to the Gulf.

One possible explanation for this seemingly strange outcome is that better health now might reflect better health from eight years ago, when more sickly vets were more likely to be kept out of Operation Desert Storm.

But in any case, the massive study blows apart the myth of the Gulf vet as a victim of some mysterious ailment. They are "victims" of slightly superior health; nothing more.

Earlier, smaller studies comparing Gulf vets with non-deployed ones have made similiar findings, including for miscarriages and birth defects among their children.

The real mystery might be why you’re reading this here first; why I was able to find not a single reference to this huge, published, peer-reviewed study in the entire vast Nexis database of newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV broadcasts. Yet the ridiculous Texas study got more than 50 references.

Then again, why should the media help blow the lid off GWS when, along with a few activists and some demagogic congressmen, the media created it in the first place?