By Michael Abramowitz
Tuesday, March 11, 2014
More than 22 years after troops began to arrive home from the first Gulf War, research that began in 2011 at East Carolina University to help U.S. veterans with symptoms of a mysterious debilitating illness will continue for at least another year.
With no known effective treatments available, Dr. William Meggs, professor of emergency medicine at ECU and chief of toxicology at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, is leading the team of biomedical scientists in a search for new medicines to treat the symptoms of Gulf War Illness, the name given to describe the symptoms suffered by some who served in the war and its aftermath, Meggs said in a Monday interview.
The illness, also known as Gulf War Syndrome, apparently affects about one-third of the nearly 700,000 veterans of the 1991 conflict. The $1.1 million three-year study appropriated by Congress in 2011 and funded by The Department of Defense will be extended through 2015, ECU officials announced.
Meggs’ team originally sought 60 veterans who developed Gulf War Illness to participate in the research of generic drugs that control inflammation in the brain that might have been triggered by neurotoxin exposures. They were able to find 40 veterans to participate in the first round of studies and now will seek 20 more for the continuing study, Meggs said.
“Gulf War illness has three components: chronic fatigue that cannot be refreshed by sleep; chronic pain, including neuropathic joint and muscle pain not caused by specific injury; and neuropsychological disabilities associated with poor memory, concentration and other aspects of higher thought functions,” Meggs said.
Physicians are frustrated by the apparent good health seen during normal medical exams given to Gulf War veterans, Meggs said.
“They look healthy, and everything seems to be working; they can see, hear, chew and walk,” he said. “But more sophisticated testing reveals the symptoms that were found in studies done in the 1990s.”
Other health issues
A number of studies have shown 1991 Gulf War veterans also suffer, to varying degrees, gastric and intestinal symptoms, respiratory symptoms and skin disorders. With its wide variety of symptoms, the illness has had a checkered history.
“It was originally dismissed as post-traumatic stress disorder by medical staff of the U.S. Veterans Administration because (the symptoms) are so prevalent after warfare,” Meggs said. “But this particular illness was from a ground war that was over in days, with only (258 U.S.) combat casualties.”
As more data came in, however, attention was drawn to soldiers’ exposure to toxic substances while in the theater of war, including sarin gas, a chemical warfare agent, and sulphur mustard. There also were 47 Iraqi Scud missile attacks into Saudi Arabia that might have dispersed low-grade chemical agents into the air.
“It’s been known for a long time that these exposures can cause chronic illness. It’s a true physiological illness,” Meggs said.
Soldiers were treated with neurotoxic drugs intended to offset the potential effects of exposure to nerve gas, with the intention of later medicinally reversing the effects of the drug, Meggs said. Other examples of chemical exposures include neurotoxic insecticides sprayed onto soldiers’ tents to deal with sand fleas and other insect pests.
When a research advisory committee was formed in 2002 to recommend research to the VA to understand the illness, Meggs already had been studying it, but the VA only could fund its own physicians. He found his way onto the committee through separate congressional funding. That is when the emphasis finally shifted from determining the causes to determining appropriate treatments, he said.
The double-blind study Meggs led used generic medications purchased with grant money and known to regulate brain inflammation. Later this month, the results of that study with the initial group of 40 veterans will be examined by independent pharmacists. Those results could guide studies of the next group of veterans, he said.
“We have a deeper understanding of this disease, but no effective treatments. The research emphasis has shifted from what happened to these service men and women to getting them well,” he said.
Gulf War veterans interested in the study can contact Dr. William Meggs at 744-5568.