About 7 percent of the 697,000 military personnel who served in the 1991 Gulf War were women, representing the largest proportion of US women serving in a war zone in military history at that time. In the 25 years since then, the percentage of female veterans living with health conditions linked to Gulf War Illness (GWI) may have surpassed that of their male counterparts, some studies suggest.
Now, a study that includes researchers from the School of Public Health will examine the prevalence and patterns of health symptoms among women who served, with the aim of guiding future advances in clinical treatment for women veterans. The research group, led by Augusta University College of Allied Health Sciences, has received a $1.1 million Gulf War Illness Epidemiology Research Award from the US Department of Defense.
SPH has a subcontract for $322,000 to help develop the Gulf War Women’s Health Cohort (GWWHC), a large database of nearly 8,000 female veterans who served during the 1991 Gulf War and participated in previous and ongoing population studies. Kimberly Sullivan, research assistant professor of environmental health, will serve as a co-investigator and site principle investigator and the Data Coordinating Center (DCC) will manage the data. The group will collect and examine survey data from veterans on topics including the prevalence and patterns of symptoms among men and women, diagnosed medical conditions, and reproductive health and birth outcomes.
Gulf War Illness refers to a group of chronic symptoms that affect men and women who served in the war. The symptoms include fatigue, headaches, concentration and memory problems, joint and muscle pain, and gastrointestinal and respiratory disorders.
Sullivan said the BU research team will share information from its 300 GWI Consortium surveys and coordinate surveys from three other groups around the country into one large military women’s health database. Her team also will devise and orchestrate a re-survey of women’s health outcomes, with study partners including Maxine Krengel from the School of Medicine, Lea Steele from Baylor Medical College, Nancy Klimas from Nova Southeastern University, and Penny Pierce and Candy Wilson from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. SPH will coordinate all of the data and collaborate with lead investigator Steven Coughlin, associate professor at Augusta University College of Allied Health Sciences.
Sullivan, who is leading a large multi-site consortium study exploring brain-immune interactions in Gulf War Illness, said she is hopeful that the new study will improve the understanding of causes and symptoms of GWI in women. She noted that few studies have evaluated the potential long-term health problems uniquely affecting women veterans.
“We’re so pleased to be part of this research effort,” said Sullivan, who has worked on several studies of Gulf War veterans over the years, including those focused on cognitive functioning, brain imaging and blood-based biomarkers in treatment-seeking veterans. “It’s important to understand whether Gulf War Illness manifests differently in women than in men. Our goal is to generate findings that can help to shape health policy regarding the long-term surveillance and treatment of military women.”
Kristy Lidie, program manager for the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, said the grant is intended to help “obtain a better understanding of mortality, morbidity and symptomatology over time in veterans deployed in the 1990–1991 Persian Gulf War and afflicted by GWI.”