updated 7/19/2004 8:07:38 PM ET 2004-07-20T00:07:38

A year on powerful antibiotics did nothing to relieve the chronic health problems reported by Gulf War veterans, demolishing the theory that so-called Gulf War syndrome is caused by a bacterial infection, researchers say.

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The bacterial-infection theory “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.”

The study was done by the Department of Veterans Affairs and was published Tuesday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Researchers have found that veterans of the Persian Gulf war in 1990 and 1991 are more likely to suffer from a range of chronic symptoms, including memory and thinking problems, debilitating fatigue, severe muscle and joint pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia, headaches and rashes. However, the cause has proved elusive.

A range of theories
Theories include stress, bacterial infection, chemical or biological weapons, pollutants from burning oil fields, depleted-uranium munitions, and vaccinations for anthrax and other potential biological weapons.

The VA researchers studied 491 Gulf War veterans who complained of 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.

The antibiotics at best did nothing, and at worst may have caused harm, the researchers concluded. The side effects included nausea and sun sensitivity. Also, scientists have long warned that indiscriminate use of antibiotics can promote the development of drug-resistant strains of bacteria.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Simon Wessely of King’s College in London 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.

Study narrows search for culprit
The positive news is that the study narrows the search for the culprit, said Stephen L. Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center 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,” Collins said. “And that’s a very difficult thing to tease out.”

He added: “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.”

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