Monday, 9 April 2018

Mood cognition, fatigue, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal and dermatological symptoms make up Gulf War Syndrome

The results of the meta-analysis by Alexis Maule and colleagues [1] provide an important addition to the peer-reviewed literature on Gulf War Syndrome / Illness (GWS). Their detailing and combining of results from various studies looking at self-reported health symptoms among deployed troops during the Persian Gulf War of 1990 adds further credence to the range of symptoms reported by returning troops. Also, they provide further clues as to where science should continue to look and intervene to help our veterans.

I've talked about the Persian Gulf War and GWS a few times before on this blog (see here and see here and see here for examples). Described in some quarters as one of the most toxic wars in history, there are still many questions that require answering about why so many veterans returned from theatre in such poor health. Much like another quite nebulous condition very often confused with other diagnoses under the heading 'medically unexplained symptoms' (see here), the relative lack of knowledge about GWS has made the condition / constellation of symptoms fertile ground for various 'psychosomatic explanations'. This, I believe, has done, and continues to do, a real disservice to the veterans of this conflict and their loved ones.

Maule et al settled on some 21 published studies, including nearly 130,000 participants and covering almost 30 years of research (the war itself started in late 1990) where self-reported symptoms were compared "in GW-deployed veterans and GW-era control veterans." GW-deployed veterans were defined as "veterans who deployed to the Gulf area in support of the 1990–1991 GW." Their comparators were described as "non-deployed veterans or veterans serving in the military during the 1990–1991 GW period who deployed to areas other than the Gulf (eg, Germany, Bosnia)." Reported health symptoms were searched for and responses boiled down across the studies.

Results: "A total of 56 distinct health symptoms were reported in three or more studies and included in the meta-analysis." Of the various health symptoms reported, 'lacking energy' topped the frequency chart for deployed veterans, fairly closely followed by related issues such as 'fatigue' and 'unrefreshing sleep'. When classifying reported health symptoms together, the following categories emerged: mood-cognition, fatigue, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal and dermatological symptoms. Further: "Results of the meta-analysis showed GW-deployed veterans had increased odds of reporting all of the analysed symptoms compared with GW-era controls, indicating that the health problems associated with GW deployment include widespread, multiple body symptoms."

The authors do caution that it is not possible to say that all of these symptoms are cardinal features of GWS insofar as their inability "to assess the effect of some covariates relevant to health symptom reporting (eg, post-traumatic stress disorder and specific deployment exposures)." They also talk about how their meta-analysis approach, similar to other occasions across various different topics, may also be liable to publication bias ("when studies with positive findings are more likely to be published than studies with null and/or negative findings"). They did try and 'correct' for this possible bias and still reported that "42 out of the 56 summary ORs [odds ratios] remained significant." That included all those 'fatigue-related' health items previously reported on.

The work from Maule and colleagues adds to a significant research base observing that poorer health outcomes seem to be an important part of deployment to the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm [2]. It again reminds us that we owe a debt to those veterans and their families, to continue to pursue a research agenda that takes their health issues seriously, and provides them with answers and the relief that many still sorely need.


[1] Maule AL. et al. Meta-analysis of self-reported health symptoms in 1990–1991 Gulf War and Gulf War-era veterans. BMJ Open. 2018; 8: e016086.

[2] Porter B. et al. Health Status of Gulf War and Era Veterans Serving in the US Military in 2000. J Occup Environ Med. 2018 Jan 24.