Gulf War Syndrome

Gulf War syndrome, popular name for a variety of ailments experienced by veterans after the Persian Gulf War. Symptoms reported include nausea, cramps, rashes, short-term memory loss, fatigue, difficulty in breathing, headaches, joint and muscle pain, and birth defects. Ailments have been reported by American, Canadian, Australian, and British veterans alike; in some cases spouses of veterans have reported similar symptoms.

The mysterious syndrome has sparked debate between veteran's groups, congressional investigators, and the military over questions of accountability, treatment, and compensation. Hypothesized causes have included parasites, biological and chemical warfare agents, prophylactic vaccines and medications given against biological and chemical warfare agents, fumes from oil well fires, and stress. In 1994 an advisory panel organized by the National Institutes of Health reported that the syndrome represented many illnesses and many causes; they deemed biological and chemical warfare agents unlikely as causes. Causes for the illnesses in many subsets of patients have been identified, e.g., some 30 veterans had leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease spread by sand flies, but in many instances the cause has not been identified.

In 1999 researchers said that brain scans of some sick veterans revealed signs of damage caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, and a study in 2004 suggested that some veterans may have been sensitive enough to otherwise low levels of poison gases to cause symptons associated with the syndrome. A committee appointed by Congress said in 2008 that evidence suggested that acetyl cholinesterase inhibitors, which include the nerve gas sarin, an anti-nerve-gas agent, and pesticides used against sand flies, and a genetic sensitivity to such chemicals may be the cause of the syndrome. Some medical historians have pointed out that syndromes of undiagnosable diseases have occurred after other wars, including World Wars I and II and the American Civil War.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Gulf War Syndrome: The `Agent Orange' of the Nineties
Milano, Fred.
International Social Science Review, Spring-Summer 2000
The Gulf War Comes Home: Sickness Spreads, but the Pentagon Denies All
Bernstein, Dennis; Kelley, Thea.
The Progressive, Vol. 59, No. 3, March 1995
Sickness and Secrecy
Rodriguez, Paul M.
Insight on the News, Vol. 13, No. 31, August 25, 1997
Credibility Gulf: The Military's Battle over Whether to Protect Its Image or Its Troops
Waldman, Amy.
The Washington Monthly, Vol. 28, No. 12, December 1996
The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things
Barry Glassner.
Basic Books, 1999
Librarian’s tip: discussion of Gulf War Syndrome begins on p. 154
Breakthrough on Gulf War Illness
Rodriguez, Paul M.
Insight on the News, Vol. 15, No. 14, April 19, 1999
Q: Is the Government Taking the Right Approach toward Gulf War Illness?
Kizer, Kenneth W.; Nicolson, Garth L.
Insight on the News, Vol. 13, No. 3, January 27, 1997
A Review of the Scientific Literature as It Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses: Pyridostigmine Bromide
Beatrice Alexandra Golomb.
Rand, vol.2, 1998
A Review of the Scientific Literature as It Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses: Pesticides
Gary Cecchine; Beatrice A. Golomb; Lee H. Hilborne; Dalia M. Spektor; C. Ross Anthony.
Rand, vol.8, 1998
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