Gulf war disease said to be contagious Health workers allegedly caught it from patients

IRVINE, CALIF. — IRVINE, Calif. -- A number of medical professionals, who say they have become ill while treating Persian Gulf war veterans, claim the mysterious disease afflicting tens of thousands of soldiers is contagious and could pose a public health threat.

Doctors, nurses and laboratory researchers, as well as others who come in casual contact with gulf war veterans, say they have contracted the same symptoms -- fatigue, fever, aches, rashes and respiratory problems -- that are generally associated with "gulf war syndrome."


Government investigators as well as some prominent scientists express deep skepticism about such theories, and they find little evidence to support the claim that gulf war illnesses are contagious.

"Everyone in this office has had gulf war illness," said Garth Nicolson, an Irvine biochemist at the nonprofit Institute for Molecular Medicine, which he founded to investigate gulf war syndrome and other chronic conditions. "I lost four teeth and had part of my lower jaw removed."


The inspiration for Nicolson's institute, which opened its doors to gulf war veterans last August, was his daughter-in-law, a 101st Airborne Division soldier who became ill after her unit penetrated deep into Iraq during the 1991 conflict.

"Practically everyone in her unit came down with gulf war illness," said Nicolson, who at the time was heading the tumor biology department at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

After a period of intense clinical research and thorough examinations of his daughter-in-law, Nicolson and his biophysicist wife, Nancy, concluded that gulf war illness could be treated with massive doses of antibiotics.

"She's fully recovered," he said of his daughter-in-law. "She's going to be entering medical school."

Until recently, many suspected that gulf war illnesses were caused by chemical weapons.

Nicolson argues that the leading culprit might be a bacterium, such as Mycoplasma fermentans, which he claims to have found in the blood of 45 percent of the ailing veterans he has tested.

Such theories have circulated among investigators for some time but have not won many converts in Washington.

"We saw [Mycoplasma fermentans] as a highly unlikely candidate for biological warfare," said Dr. Shyh-Ching Lo, chief of the Division of Molecular Pathology at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C.


In its final report two months ago, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses also discounted Nicolson's arguments about the likely source of gulf war syndrome.

Pub Date: 3/09/97