WASHINGTON (Reuter) - A White House panel of experts suggested Tuesday that stress was a major factor in Gulf War illness, but found no common cause for the ailments that have struck thousands of veterans of the 1991 conflict.
President Clinton asked the panel of scientists and defense experts to extend its work on the problem for at least nine months and ordered other steps to help veterans stricken with undiagnosed ills after the war with Iraq.
He acted after getting a report from the group that severely criticized the Pentagon's initial handling of the problem even though it supported the Pentagon's conclusion that there was no single cause for so-called Gulf War Syndrome.
"We haven't ended the suffering, we don't have all the answers, and I won't be satisfied until we have done everything humanly possible to find them," Clinton said.
As many as 60,000 of the more than 500,000 U.S. troops who served in the Gulf have complained of ills ranging from chronic fatigue to muscle and joint pain. But a continuing Pentagon investigation has found no evidence so far of possible exposure to Iraqi chemical or biological agents.
"Based on existing scientific data, none of the individual environmental Gulf War risk factors commonly suspected appears to be the cause ... and while the committee finds that stress is likely to be an important contributing factor to Gulf War veterans illnesses, the story is by no means complete," said Dr. Joyce Lashof, who chairs the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.
Lashof added in a later interview with Reuters that it was important for veterans and the public to realize that physical and emotional stress could play an important and legitimate role in the cause of physical ills.
"It contributes to many other illnesses, so it is important to emphasize and re-emphasize that when we say stress is a cause of illness, we don't mean that it is imaginary or it's a sign of weakness," she said.
"This is part of the body's physiology. It affects the immune system, its nervous system, practically every organ."
The Pentagon accepted criticism by the committee that it was slow in its early investigation, but stressed that it was now forging ahead in an investigation that could take years.
Besides asking the panel to stay in business for another nine months, Clinton directed the Department of Veterans Affairs to consider extending its two-year time limit on disability claims by veterans.
He also directed Veterans Affairs and the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services to develop concrete plans to follow the recommendations of the advisory panel.
"I pledge to our veterans and to every American: we will not stop until we have done all we can to care for our Gulf War veterans, to find out why they are sick, and to help make them healthy again," Clinton said.
Later, results of a third federal study were released showing that more Gulf War veterans report chronic fatigue and other ills than veterans who were not in the Gulf.
The study of 4,000 Iowa veterans was conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control. It found that Gulf War veterans were three times more likely to report chronic fatigue, 122 percent more likely to report memory problems and 81 percent more likely to report muscle aches.
The Pentagon has said there is no evidence that Iraq used chemical arms in the war, but it said last year that as many as 20,000 U.S. troops might have been been exposed to nerve agents in the March 1991 destruction of an Iraqi arms dump.
That destruction of ammunition by U.S. military engineers at Kamisiyah in southern Iraq sent up a giant blast cloud, and the Pentagon is now investigating whether U.S. soldiers suffered low-level exposure from fallout.
Some members of Congress and veterans groups have accused the department of bumbling and even outright coverup.
Lashof said she and her colleagues found no evidence of a coverup. But she was critical of the Pentagon.
"Overall, the government has responded with a comprehensive series of measures to resolve questions about Gulf War illnesses. Unfortunately, the positive nature of these efforts has been diminished by how the Department of Defense approached the possibility that U.S. troops had been exposed to chemical weapons," she said.
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