New Bern, NC – With American troops on the ground in two overseas conflicts, what happened two decades ago slips farther from mind unless you were there and still dealing with the aftermath.
"What we know is that about a third of the servicemen and women who served in the 1991 Gulf War returned chronically ill and the illness has three components to it a neurological component, a fatigue component and a pain component."
Dr. William Meggs, an ECU medical toxicologist who is leading a team of biomedical scientists in a study of new medicines to treat Gulf War Illness a necessary study because when it comes to a standard of treatment twenty years after veterans first started complaining of chronic fatigue, pain and impaired cognitive functions
"Well, there is none. These veterans have been treated with a variety of psychiatric medications and pain medications and so forth but the psychiatric medications have not been very effective and of course the pain medication you take a pain pill and it helps your pain until it wears off, so there's really no treatment getting at the underlying cause of the disease."
Dr. Meggs will lead a 3-year study conducted with 60 veterans dealing with Gulf War Illness sponsored by the Department of Defense. The theory is that those with Gulf War Illness are experiencing a "smoldering inflammation of the brain" caused by exposure to a toxic brew of chemicals during their deployment.
"What we have are studies that the veterans who became ill were more likely to be exposed to insecticides that are neurotoxic, and they used these insecticides to spray their tents for sand fleas and that's the strongest correlate with the studies with having the illness."
The veterans were also exposed to sarin gas from Iraqi forces, depleted uranium and the smoke from oil well fires amongst other exposures. The study will treat the vets with two generic drugs one used in cough & cold medication, the other to reverse the effect of heroin and morphine overdoses that have the additional ability to reduce inflammation in the brain. The drugs have been used on rats exposed to a similar brew of toxins with encouraging results.
"It's been shown that they inhibit enzymes in the brain that promote inflammation. In terms of the rat studies, it's difficult to ask a rat if they have pain but there are ways to test the intellectual function of a rat and its been shown to ameliorate that."
It's hoped this drug regimen won't provide just an amelioration of symptoms but actually a cure for veterans.
"That's our hope that if we reduce the inflammation in the brain that their illness will be greatly relieved and we hope after a course of treatment they will not relapse but that actually remains to be seen."
If not a cure, it's hoped the study will at least reveal a lifetime drug regimen to keep symptoms at bay. First things first signing up veterans for the study in order to see if, after 20 years, the vitality of the vets who served in the Gulf War can be restored.
"They were America's finest combat ready troops, in excellent health, most of them were young and they went over to the theatre and something dramatic happened to their health, and now 20 years later they have not regained their health, so we're hoping we can do some good here."
Dr. William Meggs is an East Carolina University medical toxicologist and a professor at the Brody School of Medicine. I'm George Olsen.