Baylor Epidemiologist Testifies Before Congressional Subcommittee on Gulf War Illness

March 15, 2013
Pat Neff Hall

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WACO, Texas (March 15, 2013) A Baylor university epidemiologist testified Tuesday before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on the care provided to veterans of the Gulf War.

Lea Steele, Ph.D., research professor in the Baylor Institute of Biomedical Studies, focused on Gulf War illness and said the VA has been slow to clearly and accurately acknowledge the problem and has failed to establish an effective and strategic scientific research program to address Gulf War illness research questions.

She testified that within the Department of Veterans Affairs, there appears to have been backward movement, with actions that seem intended to ignore the science and minimize the fact that there is a serious medical condition resulting from military service in the 1991 Gulf War.

"This is a throwback to early speculation from the 1990s that there was no problem, or that veterans just had random, disconnected symptoms--symptoms that invariably develop after any military deployment and are likely stress-induced," she said.

"Such opinions were more common in the 1990s, when there was limited research in this area. But they are inexplicable today, in 2013, in the face of consistent scientific evidence to the contrary. Such portrayals are especially troubling when they come from sectors within the federal agency tasked with serving veterans, and when they negatively affect government policies, healthcare, and research."

Steele has conducted research on the health of Gulf War veterans since 1998. Before joining the Baylor Institute of Biomedical Studies in 2010, she served as scientific director for the federal Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' illnesses. The committee was mandated by Congress to conduct an independent review of federal research addressing health issues facing Gulf War veterans.

"This is an incredibly important time for Gulf War illness research," Steele testified. "Scientific advances in the last decade have provided important insights into Gulf War illness--how many people are affected, which factors are most implicated as contributing to this problem, and the biological processes that drive veterans' symptoms. Multiple research groups have now identified a range of neurological differences in veterans with Gulf War illness--differences in brain structures, brain function, and autonomic regulation. Studies have also identified specific immune, endocrine, and hematological differences in veterans with Gulf War illness.

"At the same time, results are beginning to come in from treatment studies that show significant benefits for veterans with Gulf War illness, with more treatment research in the pipeline, and more results expected in the near term. After so many years of waiting, there is finally some hope for Gulf War veterans-- hope that they will have answers that are long overdue and hope that treatments will be found that can meaningfully improve their health and their lives. Those of us most involved in this research believe, based on recent progress, that these successes are possible, and within sight," she said.

Steele is director of the Baylor Veterans' Health Research Program and is the recipient of federal grants to support research projects on Gulf War illness. In one study, she is partnering with Scott & White Healthcare to provide clinical assessments, including an in-depth look at the brain, the immune system, and diverse other measures in Gulf War veterans. "This project should give us a clearer picture of the complex biological processes that drive veterans' symptoms," Steele said. "This is an essential step for improving the care provided for ill veterans."

Another project will focus on developing a blood test to improve the diagnosis of Gulf War illness. According to Steele, "Gulf War illness is currently defined only on the basis of veterans' symptoms. An objective test to assist in diagnosing this condition would be immensely beneficial to veterans and their healthcare providers, and can also provide an important tool to better understand and treat this condition."

A third project includes a national study to determine the current health status of veterans across the U.S. who served in the 1991 Gulf War. It will also establish an information and research network for veterans to receive periodic updates on health issues and connect veterans with scientists who are conducting health studies of Gulf War veterans.

Gulf War illness is the term commonly used for the symptomatic condition that affects military personnel who served in the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Symptoms typically include some combination of chronic headache, widespread pain, memory and concentration difficulties, and digestive and other abnormalities - problems that are not explained by medical or psychiatric diagnoses or by routine laboratory tests.
Studies indicate at least one in four of the 700,000 military personnel who served in the 1990-1991 war are affected, and that few have recovered over time.

Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.