Previous SectionIndexHome Page




10.28 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I have great pleasure in presenting to the House a petition put together by the National Anti-Vivisection Society. It is long overdue.

The petition calls for a substantial investigation into how the current legislation operates and reads:

That petition was signed by 105,000 citizens of the United Kingdom, led by Miss Fiona Deal of London. To lie upon the Table.

25 Jun 1997 : Column 955

Gulf War Syndrome

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Clelland.]

10.29 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): It might be asked why we need to revisit the subject of Gulf war syndrome, given that it is more than six years since the end of the Persian Gulf war, and the Ministry of Defence is funding two epidemiological studies into the health of Gulf war veterans and their families.

The first of the studies will aim to establish whether there are unusual patterns of ill health among the veterans, and the second will examine whether they are experiencing adverse reproductive outcomes. A third study, with the support of the United States Department of Defence, will carry out a detailed epidemiological study into the patterns of illness. The studies will not necessarily identify causes and will take some three years to complete--they should be completed by 2000.

A novel investigation, promoted and planned by the Government, will be funded; it will examine the health effects of having been subjected to multiple vaccinations and chemical medications to negate the effects of nerve gases, in recognition of the possibility of synergistic interactive effects between the two onslaughts.

The reason for revisiting the problem is that we are just beginning to see the emergence of scientific research that addresses the long-term health effects on the service men and women who took part in that war. Although the information applies to studies in the United States, it is of considerable interest.

Clearly, the troops were exposed to several potentially serious physical and psychological stresses. Those included multiple immunisations, pyridostigmine prophylaxis, pollution from oil fires and the liberal use of pesticides, such as organophosphates and insect repellents. The list continues to grow.

As the war occurred in inhospitable surroundings and there was the recurring threat of exposure to chemical and microbiological weapons--possibly sarin, which was used in the Tokyo underground, and mustard gas--adverse effects on health would be unsurprising.

Overriding all the research, however, is the serious complication of defining Gulf war syndrome. A syndrome is generally defined as a group of symptoms that occur together and characterise a particular disease.

Many syndromes are known to medical science and are relatively easy to define. The recorded symptoms in the case of the veterans, however, have been so wide ranging, from depression to cognitive dysfunction, that researchers are tempted to break them down into three or four separate syndromes affecting perhaps three or four separate organ systems.

One of the scientists stated:

That conclusion is disputed by others. At present, as there is no clear specifically associated illness--a cancer, for example--we cannot say whether Gulf war syndrome is one syndrome.

25 Jun 1997 : Column 956

It is clear, however, that so far in the new studies, which are the first to study human populations, there is strong evidence of a health problem associated with service in the Gulf. Given memory recall and poor records, it is difficult to associate any particular exposure or exposures with a defined symptom.

A body of evidence suggests that each substance in itself could cause a range of problems. Organophosphate pesticides are known to have chronic neurological effects on agricultural workers, and research into longer-term low-level exposures is suggestive, but not as consistent as studies on chronically poisoned subjects. There is some evidence, for example, of sub-clinical effects on the central and peripheral nervous systems of sheep dippers.

A worrying element in the saga appeared in today's newspapers, which reported that tents from the Gulf war, which were sprayed with organophosphates, were sold to scout troops in this country. I should be grateful for clarification from the Minister on the matter, and I hope that he can go some way towards laying to rest the concerns about that use of organophosphates.

A really interesting find, which may point to a final resolution of the problem, is that pyridostigmine can cross the blood-brain barrier and affect central nervous system function under stress conditions. It is clear that the toxicological, biochemical and congenital effects of these compounds and vaccinations, singly or together, were poorly understood before the troops from the United States and from this country were subjected to them.

Although, as a scientist, I could get embroiled for hours in deliberations on and details of the biological and medical effects, we must admit that unravelling the roles of the various factors is a complex task. It may be more important to look at the individuals who are ill--as many become ill--and decide what to do. After all, we may reach the same end effect of any particular health condition via various routes, each of which is initiated and maintained by different factors.

I thought about that matter today in the context of the controversy over the increase in cancers that people predict some groups will suffer. I thought also about the dramatic increase in prostate cancer in East Anglia and how prostate cancer became a popular study in the United States when Stormin' Norman contracted it. The Gulf war had been shown on television, and there was suddenly a great interest in that type of study. I could not help but correlate his problem with that of the Gulf veterans. I do not mean to imply that the general's prostate tumours resulted from his participation in the Gulf war, but we must know what factors are causing the increase in prostate tumours.

There is nothing sacrosanct about three years' research--studies may take a lot longer. We may find that the selection of projects is rather biased and that, for example, clinical studies on the immune response of the veterans who were exposed to multiple vaccinations and pyridostigmine are the source of relevant data. For example, it is relevant to ask: do multiple vaccinations associate with immunological abnormalities and do they produce a satisfactory antibody response--which is a marker of immunity? Developing correlations of Gulf war illness with such effects seems as appropriate a research subject as those being researched.

25 Jun 1997 : Column 957

All that is fine. However, as one of the British researchers has said:

He continues:

    "It is a pity they were not able to start sooner".

The studies at this stage are hypothesis generating and not hypothesis testing. We should also take account of a further complication, as US research defines health differences between reservists and Regulars. Britain made far less use of reservists.

Where does that leave the situation? The medical assessment programme continues to give individual attention to the vital health problems associated with Gulf war service and, although it has been criticised, it has at least blazed a trail for future surveillance strategy.

Some emerging problems in legal compensation merit our immediate attention. Hon. Members will know that there are two possible sources of help for armed forces personnel who believe that they are ill as a result of service in the Gulf war: a war pension from the Department of Social Security or a pension from the armed forces pension scheme. In practice, most of the claims from Gulf war veterans who argue that they are suffering from the syndrome relate to the DSS. Although it is true that, by May 1997, 140 of 279 claims from service men who linked their illness to service in the Gulf had been cleared--resulting in 124 awards in the service men's favour--another problem is fast approaching.

Seven years after the end of service is the cut-off point at which the burden of proof shifts to the claimant--the service man or woman. I acknowledge that, where there is reasonable doubt, the service man or woman will get the benefit of that doubt. However, as the end of the seven years approaches fast for many service men and women, the Secretary of State must show beyond reasonable doubt that the injury was not attributable to, or aggravated by, service.

There will be no problem if the research establishes a link between service in the Gulf and the illnesses of which veterans complain. However, if it concludes that there is no link or it is neutral on the subject, difficulties will clearly arise. In March 1997, the Defence Select Committee concluded:

I believe that 1,228 notices of intention to claim for legal compensation under common law for causation and negligence have been filed by veterans. The Select Committee continued:

    "For those Gulf War veterans who can establish that they were exposed to OPs"--

organophosphates, pesticides--

    "and that there is no other explanation for current illness we believe that there is a strong case for ex-gratia payment. We recommend that the Government makes such a payment."

25 Jun 1997 : Column 958

In the light of the uncertainties, the conclusions of the research, the time span allowed--three years--the obvious illness of Gulf war veterans and the seven year cut-off point for claims soon approaching, I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Minister is prepared to re-examine the question of payments, take legal opinion if necessary, examine previous similar problems that have been handled by the Government, and report back.

I believe that research must continue for however long it takes. It should be expanded to embrace other questions. Research should ensure that the problems to which I have drawn attention never happen again, and should lead to a more careful scientific and medical assessment of many of the compounds that pervade our lives.

Next Section

IndexHome Page