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The combination of symptoms known as “Gulf War Syndrome” affects nearly 200,000 veterans. Yet, despite a long, well-documented history of the illness, many physicians still think it’s all in the patients’ mind. But, while testifying before the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs recently, Dr. Meryl Nass explained that the illness is real, and requires better research.

A nationally renowned expert on bioterrorism, anthrax and vaccine injuries, Dr. Nass, who is also a physician with MDI Hospital, was asked to testify before the committee to help it investigate improved research and treatment of affected veterans.

Symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome include muscle and joint pain, memory loss, intestinal and heart problems, fatigue, diarrhea, and rashes. “Gulf War soldiers encountered an unprecedented mix of noxious substances, which are known to cause neurological, immunologic and other adverse effects,” explained Dr. Nass in her testimony. 

“A very reasonable hypothesis is that those who became ill reached a tipping point, where their body’s ability to safely process the toxic materials they took in was exceeded,” she remarked. However, she pointed out that effective treatment is still largely unavailable to veterans.

Part of the problem, she explained, is that doctors aren’t universally convinced that the syndrome exists. Dr. Nass asserted that many physicians have been convinced by the media that Gulf War Illnesses either do not exist, are psychosomatic or a result of stress. “Surprisingly, this includes physicians at VA facilities who care for affected patients,” Dr. Nass added.

Dr. Nass runs a clinic at the Hospital’s Cooper Gilmore Health Center to treat patients suffering from Gulf War and other multi-symptom syndromes. “Many patients with Gulf War Syndrome meet criteria for other medically unexplained conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and multiple chemical sensitivity,” explained Dr. Nass. 

“These conditions are poorly understood, but have a very similar pattern of symptoms and findings as Gulf War Syndrome.” The lack of understanding, she added, is because research to-date has focused on psychiatric causes, and has failed to investigate treatment.

Insurance coverage for treatment is another roadblock for those suffering from Gulf War Syndrome. “A few doctors have experimented with various detoxification strategies, and some alternative doctors use these treatments frequently, but they are not proven to be effective and are not eligible for third party reimbursement,” Dr. Nass remarked.

In addition, patients with multiple symptoms require a lot of physician attention. “I am fortunate that as a salaried physician, my employer, Mount Desert Island Hospital, allows me to conduct a specialty clinic as a community service, even though I could bring in considerably more fees treating patients with standard illnesses during brief visits,” she pointed out.

Her approach, like the syndromes she treats, is multifaceted. “I address treatment for each symptom individually,” she explains. “I also try to optimize patients’ overall metabolic function with diet, vitamins and supplements. Antioxidants may also be helpful.”

But Dr. Nass admits that effective treatment for Gulf War and other multiple-symptom syndromes is not likely to be widely available in the foreseeable future. “Without adequately funded research and training, physicians who are knowledgeable about treating these patients will continue to be few and far between.”

For an appointment with Dr. Nass, call MDI Hospital at 288-5081.

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