Gulf War syndrome (GWS) or Gulf War illness (GWI) is the name given to an illness with symptoms including increases in the rate of immune system disorders and birth defects, reported by combat veterans of the 1991 Gulf War.

Symptoms attributed to this syndrome have been wide-ranging, including chronic fatigue, loss of muscle control, migraines and other headaches, dizziness and loss of balance, memory problems, muscle and joint pain, indigestion, skin problems, and shortness of breath. U.S. Gulf War veterans have experienced mortality rates exceeding those of U.S. Vietnam veterans. Brain cancer deaths, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and fibromyalgia are now recognized by the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments as potentially connected to service during the Persian Gulf War.

About 30 percent of the 700,000 U.S. servicemen and women in the first Gulf War have registered in the Gulf War Illness database set up by the American Legion. Many still suffer a baffling array of serious health impairments.

U.S. and UK, with the highest rates of excess illness, are distinguished from the other nations by higher rates of pesticide use, but also, notably, the use of anthrax vaccine. It’s interesting to note that the French troops, with the lowest illness rates, declined the use of anthrax and other vaccines.

Anthrax Vaccine Causes Gulf War Syndrome

By Meryl Nass, MD

Until 1998, there existed no published papers that explored whether receiving anthrax vaccine was related to Gulf War illnesses. Instead, several expert committees (lacking experience with anthrax) were asked to comment on whether anthrax vaccine was likely to be a cause of Gulf War Illnesses. The committees were given DOD briefings, did not review the literature (there were no published studies of safety or efficacy for the licensed anthrax vaccine), concluded that a relationship was unlikely, and then recommended against further research (1).

Studying American veterans was particularly difficult because many were not told whether they were given anthrax vaccine, and the vaccinations were specifically not entered into service members’ shot records. Epidemiological studies used to investigate causal links with illness have been hampered by the lack of accurate data, including service records and medical and/or vaccination records. Health surveillance was not carried out during deployment, or immediately post deployment. Other centralized vaccine records have been lost.

Despite concerns about the investigational status of anthrax vaccine when used for biological warfare, no informed consent was obtained from service members at the time of the Gulf War, and no waiver of informed consent was sought from the FDA.

The Canadian Department of National Defense (DND) hired a consulting company (Goss Gilroy Inc.) to study the health of Canadian Gulf Veterans and look at various exposures. Their report was published on the DND website. They found a significant relationship between receiving non-routine (biological warfare) immunizations and developing chronic fatigue, a very common symptom of GWS (2).

In 1999 a British study examined a large number of Gulf War exposures in large cohorts of British Gulf War and non-deployed Gulf-era veterans, and Bosnia veterans. They found that for both the Gulf War and the Bosnia veterans, receiving anthrax vaccine was related to developing an illness consistent with Gulf War Syndrome (GWS). They wrote, “Vaccination against biological warfare and multiple routine vaccinations were associated with the CDC multi-symptom syndrome in the Gulf War cohort (3).”

This group published a follow-up paper in the British Medical Journal that claimed that only Gulf War veterans who received vaccines after deployment, not before, showed this relationship. However, they later retracted this conclusion, and acknowledged that the timing of vaccination did not affect the relationship between vaccination and GWS.