Vaccine clue found to Gulf war syndrome
BRITISH scientists believe they have pinpointed a medical cause for Gulf war syndrome in a breakthrough which could force the Ministry of Defence into paying tens of millions of pounds in compensation.
Immunologists at University College London say they have for the first time established how vaccinations given to troops in the war against Iraq, combined with exposure to insecticides, could cause the symptoms afflicting many hundreds of British veterans.
The MoD, which has always denied that the syndrome has a single medical explanation, will test the hypothesis as part of the programme of epidemiological studies announced by the Conservative government earlier this year.
If the theory to be published this week in the Lancet medical journal proves correct, it will open the door to massive compensation claims from veterans. For six years, former soldiers have battled to prove that the drug cocktails they were given to protect them against disease and chemical weapons were to blame for their illnesses.
Professor Graham Rook and Dr Alimuddin Zumla, who made the breakthrough, also believe that their work could lead to an effective treatment for Gulf war syndrome using drugs already on the market.
Rook said this weekend that the effect of the vaccinations combined with insecticides had been devastating. The drug cocktails suppressed one part of the body's immune system, known as Th1, which combats viruses and cancers.
At the same time Th2, a part of the immune system which normally reacts mildly against pollen or house dust mites, was made hypersensitive to outside irritants.
This double effect meant that soldiers were more likely to succumb to common diseases, while also suffering extreme allergic reactions to harmless elements in the atmosphere.
"A systematic shift towards Th2 leads to patients developing more diseases, particularly chronic virus infections, as their Th1 protection is diminished," said Rook.
"There is also an increase in allergic symptoms prompted by increases in Th2 reactions, and mood changes which we can attribute to the corresponding changes in their hormone and cytokine levels. This explains the extraordinary diversity of symptoms seen in Gulf war veterans."
Many of the vaccines given to British and American troops in the Gulf, including cholera, anthrax and bubonic plague, are believed to cause the precise immune system changes described by Rook.
French troops, who did not receive the same massive drug cocktails as their American and British counterparts, have not suffered the same incidence of Gulf war syndrome.
British soldiers often received several vaccinations at once, without proper records being kept: many erroneously received more than one dose of each.
The new medical study has been hailed by campaigners as a landmark in securing a fair deal for the 1,500 British veterans who are afflicted. Terry English, of the Royal British Legion, which has advised most of the sick British Gulf war veterans, said the soldiers who claimed they had been made ill serving their country appeared to be vindicated.
"This is the first time that anybody has come up with a sound scientific basis for the veterans' suspicions which also accounts for all their symptoms," he said.