- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2002

Here we go again. "VA, DoD find Lou Gehrig risk in Gulf war service," boomed the Copley News Service. "U.S. reports disease link to Gulf war," proclaimed the New York Times. The major TV news broadcasts provided an identical spin.

This game has continued for eight years now, always with America's vets as the pawns. Somebody claims to have found a link between Gulf service and some health problem. Then the link proves unreproducible or is refuted outright. This one is different in only one way, but it's a big one.

The Defense Department, exhausted by years of defending itself against charges of cover-ups and callousness, finally eagerly capitulated. It announced it would immediately pay "presumptive" benefits to any Gulf war vet with the muscle-wasting and ultimately fatal disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Soon we'll being making presumptive payments for any disease that appears even slightly more prevalent among Gulf vets.

And that's a shame for several reasons.

First, the study (paid for by the Defense Department and the VA) is worthless. Second, even if it were valid it would not indeed could not establish the existence of "Gulf War Syndrome."

Here's what's wrong with both the study and the uncritical response to it.

Even Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi has called the study "preliminary," for good reason. It is not finished, it has not been published, it has not been reviewed by other scientists, there's nothing for anyone to look at.

Conversely, myriad previous studies, many published in peer-reviewed medical journals, have found no link between Gulf service and any illness.

Even Mr. Principi admitted that two prior U.S. studies had found no ALS-Gulf service link. Nor had a British one.

And this one didn't find one either. Here's what it did find:

Of the nation's 700,000 Gulf vets, 40 were identified with ALS. Among 1.8 million vets who didn't deploy to the Gulf, 67 cases were identified. Adjusting for age and other variables to which we are not privy, that comes out to a risk of contracting ALS of 6.7 per million among Gulf vets, and 3.5 per million among nondeployed vets. That's the doubling Mr. Principi spoke of and the media parroted.

But a more accurate way to express the numbers is that the expected rate of cases among Gulf vets, according to the researchers, was 33 and instead there were 40. That's a mere 21 percent elevation. Suddenly the differences don't seem so different.

This is all the more so when you discover the highest rate of ALS was among Air Force Gulf vets, yet they were least likely to be in forward areas where all the alleged toxins were.

Are blue uniforms a risk factor for ALS? Doubtful. It just shows that huge statistical swings occur when dealing with small numbers.

What's more, it turns out that whether the Gulf vets had any excess of ALS depends on the group to whom you compare them.

If we add both groups, we get a total of 2.5 million vets. The expected rate of cases among this group would be about 118. But the actual number of cases was 40 plus 67, for a total of 107. So combined, the Gulf vets and non-Gulf vets had 9 percent fewer cases than the expected number among civilians.

So it's not that the Gulf vets are sicker than we would expect, but that the non-Gulf vets are healthier.

The study also committed a whopper.

The researchers told the New York Times that they identified ALS cases among Gulf vets in part by appealing to GWS activist groups. There are no activist groups for the nondeployed vets they used as controls.

This would be like conducting a poll in which the men surveyed were drawn from liberal groups and the women surveyed were contacted by random dialing, then announcing that the results show men are more likely to be liberals.

For all this, even if the study had shown a link indeed, even if it had shown a cause-and-effect association it could not establish the existence of this beast known as Gulf War Syndrome.

This study involved 40 vets sick with one disease, yet tens of thousands of Gulf vets have complained of more than 120 different illnesses that they claim are service-connected. Proving that a man robbed one bank doesn't prove he robbed a thousand.

No matter; the activists have spoken and the media have given them a bullhorn. As U.S.News & World Report put it, "The findings were heralded by some veterans groups as a major victory in their 10-year fight to have their symptoms connected to their deployment in the Gulf."

A Boston Globe editorial touting the study said, "At a time when U.S. soldiers are again in harm's way, the military must be alert to all possible hazards."

Right. That includes the hazard of telling soldiers going into harm's way that, while they may survive the war unscathed, they could actually become exposed to some undetectable sort of magical pixie dust that will make them sicken and die years or even decades later. There's never a good time for nonsense like this, but during a war is the worst time of all.

Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., where he is completing a book on advances in biotechnology. His Reason article "Gulf Lore Syndrome" was a finalist for the National Magazine Award.

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