Study may link vaccines, Gulf illnesses

From: "\"Doc\" Melson" <>


Study may link vaccines, Gulf illnesses

April 14, 2000

On the Net

Tulane study abstract:

Defense Department response: click on Q and A, see ''accusations - squalene,'' at

Rep. Jack Metcalf

WASHINGTON (AP) - A study has found a possible link between antibodies to a natural molecule used in experimental vaccines and unexplained illnesses afflicting thousands of military personnel who served in the Gulf War.

The Tulane University Medical School study found high levels of antibodies to squalene in a large percentage of sick veterans vaccinated for Gulf War service.

Pentagon officials dismiss the study as flawed and say none of the vaccines administered during the Gulf War contained squalene.

But in response to congressional pressure, the Defense Department late last month asked the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board to review the study. The National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine also is reviewing the research and assessing what, if any role squalene may play in Gulf illnesses.

"All known, testable hypotheses concerning illnesses among Gulf War veterans have been or are being pursued," Sue Bailey, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Wash., in a letter last month.

Squalene is a cholesterol-builder in humans and also is found in vegetable oils, shark liver oil, cosmetics and various health supplements. The Defense Department and National Institutes of Health in the late 1980s began researching the use of squalene in vaccines in an effort to make vaccines more effective.

Defense officials told the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, that they considered - but decided against - using vaccines with squalene during the Gulf War.

The Tulane study, published in the February issue of Experimental and Molecular Pathology, found that all but two of 38 sick veterans who served in the Gulf and received at least one vaccination had elevated squalene antibodies.

Another six sick veterans who were vaccinated but did not go to the Gulf produced similar results, according to the study. Those results were blinded, meaning the researchers did not know the source of blood samples.

Non-blinded portions of the study found 59 of 86 Gulf War-era veterans, civilian employees and military contractors tested positive for squalene antibodies, although it was not known how many of those were vaccinated.

Other groups, including the general public and sick non-veterans with symptoms similar to Gulf illnesses, rarely tested positive for the antibodies.

The Tulane study offered no conclusions as to whether Gulf War vaccines contained squalene, what might have produced the squalene antibodies or what - if any - role the antibodies played in the illnesses.

Still, the research ''sets off alarm bells'' that should prompt more investigation into Gulf War vaccines and the safety of vaccines that contain squalene, said Pam Asa, an immunologist from Memphis, Tenn., and the lead researcher.

Robert F. Garry, a study author and immunologist at Tulane, said the results may not point to vaccines containing squalene but that veterans could have produced the antibodies as the result of receiving so many vaccines at one time, or from some other organism in a vaccine that may mimic squalene.

Pentagon officials question the study methods, saying researchers did not verify the validity of their antibody test before they began using it.

''Because I question the method of the test, I have to question all of the findings,'' said Lt. Col. John Grabenstein, deputy director of the military's anthrax vaccine immunization program.

Dr. Julius Cruse, editor and chief of the journal that published the study, defended the study, saying it was peer reviewed by 10 to 12 clinicians.

Ten members of Congress, led by Metcalf, want the Pentagon to consider using the Tulane test on other veterans, saying it could help answer questions about Gulf illnesses.

The Pentagon says an estimated 90,000 troops who served in the Gulf War complain of illnesses such as fatigue, skin rashes, headaches and muscle and joint pain. Defense officials have not ruled out pesticides, stress and pyridostigmine bromide, an experimental drug given to troops to protect against the nerve agent soman, as possible contributors to some of the illnesses.

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