"SICKNESS AND SECRECY"
By Paul M. Rodriguez
A FOREIGN SUBSTANCE -- AN ADJUVANT BANNED FOR USE IN HUMANS -- CONSISTENTLY
HAS BEEN FOUND IN THE BLOOD OF PERSIAN GULF WAR
VETERANS. IS IT AT THE ROOT OF THE ILLNESS THAT HAS PLAGUED THOUSANDS?
Accounts of the mystery sickness called Gulf War Syndrome or Persian
Gulf Illness read like unfolding chapters in a story that could have been
written by Michael Crichton, Tom clancy -
or the Three Stooges- Unlike Joe Klein, the authors of this human tragedy may remain anonymous. Even the ending may never be known.
But current and former soldiers are getting sicker by the day. Treatment systems in military and other government facilities are being called inadequate and confusion down the chain of command is adding to the misery of thousands of American vets and their families.
Backpedaling by the Defense Department about whether soldiers were exposed to biological and chemical warfare agents during the Persian Gulf War, and the disappearance of 700,000 service-related immunization records add story lines reeking of conspiracies, cover-ups and top-secret intrigue.
Meanwhile, the sick become sicker,and more join the ranks daily. By
the hundreds. Doctors, nurses and medics, immunologists and toxicologists,
both military and civilian have come to Insight with tales of outrage,
anguish, guilt, suspicion and previously undisclosed information
that provides new and deeply puzzling data that all hope will lead to answers
and treatment for
America's gulf-war veterans. Most puzzling is the fact that the sick involve soldiers from the war era who deployed - as well as those who never left the U.S. soil or entered any theater of conflict.
It is from this last clue - sickness among both deployed and non-deployed
that we begin. If unwritten chapters of this mystery confirm the suspicions
of the health-care specialists, secretive medical experiments such as the
Tuskegee syphilis studies and the live nuclear-radiation tests on U.S.
servicemen will pale in comparison. This is no outer space Andromeda Strain,
there is grave concern it could involve a mad-scientist experiment gone awry - maybe even one involving the AIDS virus.
Before proceeding, however, bear in mind the first maxim of investigative
journalism and research science: Never leap to conclusions. That said,
a small but important element of the unfolding mystery provides startling
new information about where to look and what to look for, who is responsible
what to do to help sick veterans get better.
This new information emerges after a four month investigation by Insight
into origins of gulf war sickness and subsequent laboratory tests conducted
on hundreds of blood samples taken from
soldiers - those sick and those showing no signs of sickness. The analysis of these results, some of which have been separately reconfirmed (though tests continue), show peculiar antibody levels for an experimental adjuvant compound known as squalene. This compound, which is not approved for internal human use other than in highly controlled experiments, has been studied on animals and humans in recent years as a promising tool to help boost the body's immune system against such illnesses as influenza, herpes simplex... and HIV. In fact, it is from the experimental HIV clinical trials run by private firms - and in conjunction with high level government research projects including those by the U.S. military -that the presence of squalene in the bodies of the sick gulf-war veterans takes on the potentially fiendish qualities of a nightmare.
It is important to note that no such connection has been made by any reputable medical, scientific or government official. In fact, it vehemently has been denied that experimental HIV immunization tests ever were expanded either to a general population of sick people or a general population of military personnel. The reason for such caution is evident: Just because squalene antibodies have been found to exist in test samples of a few hundred gulf-war veterans suffering from the Persian Gulf War syndrome does not mean they correlate to currently known HIV experimental vaccine tests using the same adjuvant compound.
That said, questions posed by Insight to top officials at the Pentagon;
the Army, Navy; Air Force and Marine Corps; the military reserves; the
National Guard; Walter Reed Army
Medical Center; the Veterans Administration; and the National Institutes of Health (Including the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) remain unanswered. Such questions have
included the following:
Why do antibodies for the experimental immune-system
affecting adjuvant known as squalene - not approved for human use beyond
highly controlled experimental uses - show up in the
bloodstreams of gulf-war veterans who are sick with a variety of
illnesses seemingly unrelated thus far to any known biological or chemical agent?
What inoculation was administered to gulf-war veterans that may have contained squalene as an adjuvant for an immunization program?
Why have thousands of gulf-war veterans told investigators that the veterans had been administered shots the contents of which have not been identified?
Why have hundreds of military doctors, nurses and medics told investigators that they were ordered to administer shots of secret contents to soldiers and then ordered to destroy the records?
Where are the hundreds of thousands of pages of shot records and invoices for the secret contents - that must be kept and maintained by the military as a matter of law?
Failure to answer such questions is certain to raise concerns about
conspiracies and secret operations gone haywire. When answers are evasive,
transparently dishonest or stonewalled, even
bigger trouble is on the way. In this case, me obfuscation by authorities have fed growing mistrust among veterans and congressional investigators who have found it all but impossible
to pierce the military and intelligence smoke screens surrounding the unusual illnesses suffered by gulf-war veterans.
Perhaps because they have no hard answers, the DoD and the VA have been responding to massive complaints from many quarters about what appears to many to be a containment operation. This has raised concern about the integrity of these institutions among veterans, congressional leaders and even the top brass.
Insight also has encountered considerable obstruction within the bureaucracy
at the VA and the DoD, but once top officials were tracked down, they seemed
genuinely concerned and earnest.
Nonetheless, key questions that drive so many of the conspiracy theories remain unanswered. Chief among these:
Where are the shot records and why are so many soldiers adamant about havingreceived secret shots to which nobody officially will admit?
And when asked how and why squalene has appeared in the blood of the sick veterans, DoD and VA officials say they have no clue. They also say the compound should not be there, and that if it proves to be present they'll be surprised.Nonetheless, Timothy Gerrity one of the leaders of the investigation into the gulf-war illnesses, tells Insight the government will investigate. Such a move no doubt would be wise, since congressional oversight panels plan full and open hearings on the squalene revelations in this Insight report.
This might be more impressive if this were the first time the squalene
theory had been called to the attention of the highest levels of government
- including the Clinton White House and the top echelons of U.S. military
and civilian brass. In fact, the theory first was advanced publicly by
Pamela Asa, a Memphis immunologist specializing in autoimmune diseases
and symptomalogy. The military and civilian authorities dismissed the "concept"
as unfounded pending independent analysis -- which
never was ordered. Why neither the DoD nor the VA took the initiative to explore these theories, advanced by Asa and several other well-known specialists, is difficult to determine.
Asa has treated hundreds of veterans showing various signs of auto-immune
like diseases and suggested such symptoms could be due to something called
"adjuvants disease." Testing this theory
only required evidence that such an adjuvant was present and, if so, determining how it got there.
For example, had there been an immunization using squalene for some
unknown medical threat; perhaps even some chemically or biologically engineered
HIV-like bug that might attack the
auto-immune system in ways similar to those being reported from vets by the tens of thousands.
Working with a variety of scientists, including toxicologists, cardiologists, oncologists, AIDS specialists, immunologists and military and civilIan specialists treating gulf war veterans, Insight has discovered the something that wasn't supposed to be there -- the telltale something that the government officially has denied.
Indeed, Army Col. Ed Koenigsberg, director of the DoD's Persian Gulf
War Veterans' Illness Investigation Team, testified before the President's
Advisory Committee on Persian Gulf Veterans
Disease in October 1995 that the Asa theory was not plausible because one, no adjuvant other than aluminum adjuvants (also called alum-based adjuvants) had been used on U.S soldiers and two, there is no such thing as adjuvants disease.
Although the only U.S.-approved adjuvant is alum-based, others -- such as squalene - have been developed and used on laboratory animals..and experimentally on humans in government-approved tests. Adjuvants act to rev up the immune arsenals, so they have been of special interest, for example, in searching for a way to deal with HIV.
A drawback of adjuvants, however (and a matter of concern and debate within scientific and medical circles for years), is that they can trigger immune responses that go out of control or generate immune reactions that attack the patient from within. Notwithstanding the debate, science has determined that only in the most advanced and careful experimental tests may adjuvants such as squalene and a related polymer compound known as squalane -- be used on human guinea pigs.
Except for work with a few cutting edge pharmaceuticals (and then only
with approval from federal authorities), only government agencies are involved
in human experimental tests using adjuvants.
Agencies authorized to conduct human experiments include the National Institutes of Health Infectious Diseases and Allergy Center and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, to name but two. In fact, the NIH and the Walter Reed facilities have been experimenting since at least the late eighties with immunizations that might combat the terrible scourge of HIV. Typically, the
experimental "immunizations" are mixed with adjuvants - like alum, squalene and squalane liquids - to provide a boost to the experimental vaccines.
When the theory first was raised one of the immunizations and an adjuvant
could be gulf-war sickness, the mIlitary said it was impossible - as did
medical authorities at the VA and civilians
at the White House. But, curiously, the military commissioned a study to review adjuvants disease, which supposedly does not exist, and immunizations. The results were released in March 1996 - six months after Koenigsberg testified before the President's Advisory committee. In this report, prepared by the U.S Army Medical Research and Material Command, or USAMRMC, the
"investigation team" concluded that the only vaccines and immunizations administered to soldiers were publicly known and were alum-based, that nothing but alum was used as an adjuvant and, therefore, the theory was faulty.
"The basic hypothesis and supporting evidence presented ... are flawed or inaccurate. Available information strongly argues against (this) hypothesis:
1.All vaccines used during the GW have a long history of
safety and all, except Bot-tox which was used under an
IND, were licensed by the FDA at the time of the Gulf War.
2.Since the standard immunization series is given to individuals
in basic and advanced training, only a relatively small
number of additional vaccines were given during deployment
to the Persian Gulf, and the previous use of these vaccines has
not resulted in problems similar to those reported by GW
3.All vaccine lots are individually licensed for safety
efficiency. The vaccines used, therefore, are unlikely to be
contaminated or of low quality.
4.The only adjuvant used in the vaccines given to GW
personnel was alum. Alum is an FDA-approved adjuvant
with a long history of safety. It has been given to millions of
people world-wide without significant problems. No
experimental adjuvants were used by the military.
5.There are no reports of alum causing HAD [Human
Adjuvants Disease] or any other chronic disease.
6.There are no reports of chronic inflammatory responses
sites of immunization with vaccines containing alum as would
be expected if HAD were to occur
7.Several recent studies (13 reports to date) have failed
show any association between silicone-gel implants and
increased incidence of connective tissue disease. There is little
supporting evidence, other than anecdotal reports, that
silicone-gel implants cause an increase in connective tissue
diseases or HAD."
The last item - No. 7- refers to theories advanced by several scientists including Asa, that symptoms experienced by gulf-war veterans appear strikingly similar to those experienced by women who have had breast augmentation with silicone-gel implants. Autoimmune-type illnesses have been reported but contested at higher rates in women with breast implants than those without silicone-gel augmentation.
The theoretical connection is simple. Silicone possesses adjuvant like qualities and thus could be causing or at least contributing to illnesses reported by women with breast implants.
Because symptomalogies experienced by gulf-war vets in peculiarly high numbers resemble similar medical maladies associated with silicone-gel implants, this theory goes, perhaps what veterans are experiencing is an adjuvant like reaction to something introduced into their bodies.
In an appendix to the USAMRMC report, an immunologist at Johns Hopkins
University hired by the military rejected the adjuvant theory as flawed
because, the claims go, there is no such thing as HAD and nothing but alum-based
vaccines were administered to the veterans. An excerpt from this unknown
immunologist's report reads, in part: "Veterans returning from the Persian
Gulf area have manifested a number of symptoms and illnesses. They include
both physical and psychological disorders. There is no evidence and no
reason to believe, however, that all of these diseases have a single etiology.
Persuasive evidence, such as that assembled by the Institute of Medicine,
shows that this syndrome represents a number of unrelated disorders with
no evidence of common origin. Studies have not yet shown that these
Illnesses, separately or collectively, are more prevalent among
Gulf War veterans than appropriate controls. As such, the military contractor concluded, the concept of an unknown adjuvant causing the gulf-war vets' illnesses "is based on a series of erroneous assumptions and unsupported conjectures.
Yes, a theory remains a theory until it is proved. But so broad and dismissive a conclusion based on so little evidence sounds like propaganda to scientists -- especially from an unnamed contract source in a footnote. Little wonder that dozens of health-care professionals interviewed by Insight during a four month investigation have expressed deep distrust and frustration with the military and the VA. "I just got fed up with the lies and the deceit," says one- "They (the government) are refusing to deal with these people and instead of doing their jobs and finding out what in the hell is medically wrong, they are letting them go or forcing them out by saying it's all in their heads or they're making it up."
This source, who remains in government service at a senior level and
thus refuses to be further identified, is far from alone in expressing
anger and fear about how the DOD and the VA have
handled both the investigation and treatment of suffering gulf-war personnel. The frustration centers on an alleged systemic failure in the U.S. government to explore not just the causes of the symptoms but also the treatment of the sick. The fear revolves around censure and sanctions imposed on those who have spoken out-- either publicly or through the chain of command -- and who, in turn, have been punished. Spokes people for the DoD and VA deny such charges, say they have been addressed openly and deny there is a cover-up or conspiracy to silence anyone who may know of one or believes one exists.
But as the General Accounting Office, or GAO, recently concluded in an exhaustive study - the third in an ongoing series by that investigative watchdog agency of Congress, the government has failed its soldiers. And this despite well over $40 million spent or allocated, nearly 100 studies (four-fifths of which are incomplete or not scheduled for completion until after the year 2000) and hundreds of personnel assigned to probe the gulf-war syndrome.
"Six years after the war, little is conclusively known about the causes of Gulf War veterans' illnesses," according to the GAO. "None of the comments we received provide evidence to challenge our principal findings and conclusions that (I) DoD and VA have no means to systematically determine whether symptomatic Gulf War veterans are better or worse today than when they were first examined and (2) ongoing epidemlological research will not provide precise, accurate, and conclusive answers regarding the causes of the Gulf war veterans' illnesses."
And, according to the GAO, in most cases, examinations of any significance did not occur until after 1994 - and then only because of public and congressional pressures to prod a lethargic bureaucracy into action.
Besides criticizing the DoD and VA, the GAO also blasted the President's Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, impaneled with much fanfare a year ago, for failing critically to examine information supplied to it by military intelligence and other government medical sources and adopted without much review in the December final report. And, GAO said of criticisms, "All of the comments we received seek to shift the onus of identifying and substantiating the causes of Gulf Way illnesses to us, when in fact we merely reviewed the sufficiency and persuasiveness of the evidence behind the administration's conclusions. In some instances, we found it to be weak or open to alternative interpretation. We believe the burden of proof is still on those who have made the assertions about the likely and unlikely causes of the illnesses.
For example, GAO Investigators found that much research had been conducted
on exposure to stress, but other hypotheses received scant support. "In
its Final Report, IOM [the Institute of
Medicine) discusses the evidence for a number of disease hypotheses, including multiple-chemical sensitivity and organophosphate induced delayed neurophathy (OPIDN). IOM found the evidence for none of the hypotheses to be highly compelling when it conducted the review, but it nevertheless
highlighted the importance of exploring all possible avenues to increase our knowledge of such illnesses and to reduce suffering and disability. Nonetheless, aside from studies examining
stress-related symptoms, relatively few studies have been supported to evaluate alternative disease hypotheses. For example, prior to October 1996, only one study focused on the health effects of potential exposure to chemical-warfare gents.While multiple studies of the role of stress in the veterans illnesses have been supported with federal research dollars, some other hypotheses have been pursued largely outside the federal research program," said the GAO.
In fact, it is just such outside research, conducted almost exclusively
without federal tax dollars and in private laboratories at prestigious
university hospitals, that the concerns or call them theories - involving
the illnesses of the gulf war soldiers may have made some breakthroughs.
Besides Asa, Garth and Nancy Nicolson, two highly respected and widely
published scientists known for their medical studies into a wide range
of immunological, cancerous and autoimmune diseases, have
advanced a separate theory of what maybe can tributing to the ill health of some of the veterans.
Specifically, the Nicolsons believe that acme vets suffer from diseases
of biological, not chemical or radiological, origins. This theory centers
on the presence of an uncommon infection of a
microorganism known as mycoplasma fermentans (incognitas strain). It is a slow-growing mycoplasma discovered deep inside white blood cells of about one-half of sick gulf-war soldiers.
Such mycoplasmas, according to the Nicolsons, may produce unusual autoimmune like signs that could account for symptoms experienced by many sick vets. The origin of this mycoplasma could be from vaccines (multiple vaccination mmune-suppression), overseas sand and water, plumes from bombing chemical and test subjects never served in the military.
We have found soldiers who are not sick that do not have the antibodies," says one of the laboratory researchers contacted by Insight. "We found soldiers who never left the United States, but who got shots. who are sick- and they have squalene in their systems. We found people who served overseas, in various parts of the desert that are sick who have squalene. And we found people who served in the desert but were civilians who never got these shots [administered by the U.S.] who are not sick and do not have squalene."
In short, says one of only a few senior government officials familiar with the blood tests for squalene: "I can't tell you why it's there, but there it is. And I can tell you this, too: The sicker an individual, the higher the level of antibodies for this (squalene) stuff." Echoing similar comments, a high-level DoD official who is involved in investigating gulf-war illnesses, says:
"I'm not telling you that squalene is making these people sick, but I am telling you that the sick ones have it in them. It's probably whatever was used with the squalene that's doing it, or in combination with the squalene. You find that, and you may be on to something."
And according to to government sources, the Nicolsons theory about mycoplasmas appears to have compelled the DOD and the VA to adopt some of their methods of detection and therapies to help the sick soldiers. The Nicolsons don't know how the HIV-like micro-organisms got into the soldiers, but because they have discovered it, they're convinced its presence proves something bizarre has occurred.
So, is the presence of squalene, HIV-like mycoplasmas and unusual sicknesses in these vets that are not tied to known biological and chemical agents coincidental? Or is there a common factor such as an experiment or experiments gone awry?
Spokes people from the VA, NIH, Walter Reed, Ft. Detrick, the DoD and various armed services say no such experiments for AIDS, say - were conducted on military personnel. But when asked why squalene is showing up in the blood of the sick, they either clam up or say they cannot explain it.
As GAO investigators and concerned congressmen are saying, if there's nothing to hide, then why hasn't the government explored the laboratory tests that are finding something that isn't supposed to be there?
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