By Laura Meckler
WASHINGTON – Soldiers who served in the Gulf War were nearly twice as likely to develop Lou Gehrig’s disease as other military personnel, the government reported today, the first time it has acknowledged a link between service in the Gulf and a specific disease.
The Veterans Administration said it would immediately offer disability and survivor benefits to veterans who served in the Persian Gulf during the conflict a decade ago.
“The hazards of the modern day battlefield are more than bullet wounds and saber cuts,” said Anthony Principi, secretary of Veterans Affairs.
The results released today have not yet been reviewed by other scientists or published in an academic journal, but officials said they were releasing them now to prevent further delay in compensating victims of the progressive, fatal disease.
“They need help now and we will offer them that help,” Principi said.
The study compared nearly 700,000 military personnel who served in the Gulf War between August 1990 and July 1991 with another 1.8 million personnel who were not deployed to the region. It found that those who were deployed were nearly twice as likely to develop amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a fatal neurological disorder often called Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Among Gulf War veterans, the rate of disease was 6.7 people per million. Among other military personnel, it was 3.5 per million.
The rate was not uniform among all personnel. Those who served in the Air Force were 2.7 times as likely to contract the disease, and those in the Army were twice as likely. Disease rates among Marine and Navy veterans were not statistically different from personnel not in the Gulf.
Researchers do not know why Gulf War veterans were more likely to contract the disease, the cause of which is unknown.
Principi said the VA would continue research on the connection between other illnesses and the Gulf War and increase research into ALS to try and find a cause, treatment and cure.
Advocates for veterans have long maintained that Gulf veterans were more likely to develop ALS but earlier, smaller studies failed to prove a connection.
The same will be proven true for other illnesses, predicted Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center.
“We’ve been proven right, and we’re going to be proven right on a lot of other things as well,” he said. “This whole issue is about to blow wide open.”
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