Study: Antibiotics no help against Gulf War illness
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- A yearlong regimen of powerful antibiotics did nothing to improve the chronic health problems reported by Gulf War veterans, a study by the Department of Veterans Affairs has found.
The findings unequivocally close the book on speculation that a bacterial infection causes the syndrome commonly known as Gulf War illness, said the authors of the report in today's edition of Annals of Internal Medicine.
"I think an infectious (cause) is off the table at this point," said Joseph F. Collins, a VA Maryland Healthcare System researcher and one of the study's authors. "It's disappointing, but the results are definitive: This is not the smoking gun."
Researchers have verified that veterans of the Persian Gulf war in 1990 and 1991 are more likely to suffer from a range of chronic and symptoms including memory and thinking problems, debilitating fatigue, severe muscle and joint pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia, headaches and rashes.
However, a source has proven elusive.
Theories on possible causes have included bacterial infection, chemical or biological weapons, pollutants from burning oil fields, vaccinations for anthrax and other potential biological weapons, depleted uranium munitions, and stress-related psychological factors.
The VA researchers studied 491 Gulf War veterans who complained of the syndrome's symptoms and who were found to have a bacterium called mycoplasma in their bloodstream that was suspected to be the culprit. The veterans were randomly assigned to take either the broad-spectrum antibiotic doxycycline or a placebo daily for a year; neither the patients nor their doctors knew who was getting what.
"We found that 18 percent of vets getting doxycycline improved, and 17 percent getting a placebo improved," Collins said.
The antibiotic group also experienced nausea and sun sensitivity more often than the placebo group. Coupled with the potential public health risks of long-term antibiotic use, the drugs at best did nothing and at worst may have caused harm, the study concluded.
An editorial accompanying the study praised the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which have spent more than $200 million on hundreds of studies researching Gulf War illness, for refusing to accept the continued and dangerous overprescription of antibiotics to tens of thousands of Gulf War veterans.
"U.S. veterans were beginning long-term, potentially hazardous antibiotic treatment to deal with the alleged infection," said Dr. Simon Wessely of King's College in London. "It would have been easy for professionals to ignore this and simply express skepticism and disapproval" but the government instead made the right decision by conducting the large trial that should halt such practices, he said.
The positive news is that the study narrows the scope of where scientists should focus their money and effort, said Stephen L. Robinson, executive director of The National Gulf War Resource Center, based in Silver Spring, Md.
"This confirms information that has already been out there," he said. "We know that we can stop looking at this and we can focus research on other areas that might prove fruitful."
Collins said that it will be a long time, if ever, before the cause of Gulf War illness is identified.
"It may be that there were multiple exposures at low doses to multiple toxins that made people sick ... and that's a very difficult thing to tease out," Collins said.
"The veterans are frustrated and they want answers, they want to know why they have this. But I'm not optimistic that medical research will ever to be able to reach a point in establishing a cause."