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Army to pursue once-dismissed theory for Gulf War illness

graphic December 26, 1996
Web posted at: 10:00 p.m. EST

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Army has agreed to examine the work of a California researcher who believes that Iraqi biological weapons are at the root of illnesses suffered by veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The scientist claims to have successfully treated victims of the mysterious illnesses with heavy doses of antibiotics, but his research had been previously rejected by the Department of Defense.

Researcher Garth Nicolson's theory revolves around possible exposure to a biological agent known as mycoplasma. The American Medical Association encyclopedia of medicine describes mycoplasmas as microorganisms about the size of viruses and -- like viruses -- have no cell wall.

Most types of mycoplasmas are harmless to people, although one variety called Mycoplasma Pneumoniae can cause a form of pneumonia. Antibiotics can usually treat the lung infection.

Nicolson met Monday with Maj. Gen. Leslie Burger, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Washington, and officials from the White House, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Veterans' Administration, the Army and the Department of Defense.

Scientist's personal experience

Dicks told CNN that Nicolson made "a convincing case" and all parties agreed to take a closer look at his findings.

Nicolson's stepdaughter was a soldier in the Gulf War and developed symptoms after her return to the United States. The symptoms, which were then developed by Dr. Nicolson and his wife, included some of the classic Gulf War Illness ailments such as fatigue, nausea, dizziness and sore joints, Dicks said.

With the personal well-being of himself and his family at stake, Nicolson, who is a microbiologist, set out to discover the cause, and look for a cure.

He says that he has identified mycoplasma in "nearly 50 percent of the veterans" he has looked at, and claims that "a number" of patients have responded very well to large doses of antibiotics, said Dicks.

Dicks said that it is important for the government researchers to look at outside studies if they want to get to the bottom of the mystery.

"I don't know why the bureaucracy thinks they have all the answers," Dicks said. "We haven't done enough" to find the cause of these illnesses. "The government looks like it's been dragging its feet," he said.

Dicks said the military has "very limited capability to detect biological weapons" and the equipment used in the Gulf was "very primitive." He said that government researchers have agreed to conduct "a protocol" on Nicolson's study beginning next month.

Nicolson had submitted his research to the Defense Department once before, but it was rejected due to methodology that the Pentagon found to be faulty, a spokesman said. Nicolson's appeal of that decision to members of Congress led to Monday's meeting.

More than 70 studies under way

Walter Reed Medical Center spokesman Ben Smith told CNN that it is committed to look at Nicolson's work, but said that further investigation "is still in a very exploratory stage".

Smith also said that at least one of the more than 70 medical studies commissioned by various government departments is intended to look at mycoplasmas as a possible cause of some of the illnesses.

The possible use of biological weapons by Iraq has been suggested as a potential cause for the elusive illnesses in the past, but the Pentagon has claimed that it has "no evidence" that such weapons were used against U.S. troops during the war there.

Other suggested causes include chemical weapons exposure, toxins from oil-well fires set by Iraq, microorganisms from insect bites, exposure to depleted uranium ammunition and a toxic combination of vaccines and other shots given to the nearly 700,000 Allied troops that deployed to the Persian Gulf.


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