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Gulf War Vets Are ‘Aging Faster’ and At Risk for COVID-19

‘Toxic wounds’ suffered decades ago increase the threat to their immune systems

By Stephenie Overman

More than 30 years after the beginning of Operation Desert Shield, those veterans who served are physically aging faster than their civilian counterparts, due to Gulf War Illness caused by toxins they were exposed to during the war.

Gulf War soldiers, Next Avenue, Gulf War
Credit: Adobe

The illness, which affects as many as 300,000 veterans, can put them at increased risk for COVID-19, said Kimberly Sullivan, senior author of the study "Gulf War Veterans Aging Faster," in an interview.

Misunderstandings about Gulf War Illness and about COVID-19 may be preventing veterans from getting the right care.

The Boston University study found Gulf War veterans reported chronic bronchitis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attack, stroke, diabetes and other chronic conditions at rates generally associated with people about a decade older. The study was published last year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Veterans with Gulf War Illness have suffered "toxic wounds" that cause damage to their nervous systems and immune systems, said Sullivan, who is research assistant professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health Department of Environmental Health. "The immune system is affected in COVID as well," she noted. "That does make them potentially at higher risk."

Sullivan is working with Dr. Nancy Klimas, director of the Institute for Neuro-Immune Medicine at Nova Southeastern University, and others to develop treatments for Gulf War Illness.

"Some of those treatments are focused on reducing oxidative stress and inflammation. They could potentially be used for COVID as well," according to Sullivan.

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Educating Health Providers

Misunderstandings about Gulf War Illness and about COVID-19 may be preventing veterans from getting the right care, warned Chelsey Poisson, a critical care emergency registered nurse in Boston.

"I work at a trauma center where we get a lot of veterans, but we don't know [about war-related problems] because we don't screen for veteran-related health issues. A lot of veterans are misdiagnosed or are not diagnosed," she said. "Veterans will not always mention their status. We don't ask as health care providers. I believe that we should."

Poisson, an Army veteran, is also a researcher for the Hunter Seven Foundation, which publishes research about Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and toxic exposures. One area of research is how to help civilian health providers understand the particular needs of veterans.

Chelsey Poisson, Next Avenue, gulf war
Chelsey Poisson in the pilot’s seat
of a MH-60a helicopter

"I was fit. I was severely injured in the military," said Poisson, who is in her 30s. "I now have respiratory problems. That's what makes me more at risk than my civilian counterparts."

A veteran might look healthy but be at increased risk because their lungs were exposed to oil well fires in the first Gulf War. A civilian health care provider might not understand how to use that information, Poisson said. "If the provider brushes it off, the veteran and family should push forward and make them understand."

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Health care providers in today's environment can get "tunnel vision. They think COVID, COVID, COVID," said Poisson. The problem may, in fact, be war-related.

To protect themselves, Poisson advises veterans to "be your own advocate. You know your body better than anyone else. Write down everything. Create an 'I Love Me Folder' to document everything that you've been through."

"They have earned these benefits and they should use them."

For example, "if you have a pain in your calf – write down the date, the time, how it felt so that if you go to the doctor you can explain," Poisson said.

Sullivan and Klimas encourage veterans who have Gulf War Illness to take all the recommended steps to prevent exposure to the coronavirus, including mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.

Family members and caregivers also should be conscientious about prevention, the two doctors stress. "Make sure you're not bringing it into the home. Think about your loved ones who are in high-risk categories," said Sullivan.

In a YouTube presentation, Klimas suggests using saline nasal sprays and taking Vitamin C or other antioxidants to strengthen the immune system.   

In the video, Klimas also gives advice on how to recognize the difference between COVID-19 and Gulf War Illness-related symptoms. "If you're short of breath, if you can't hold your breath for ten seconds, you should probably go to the ER," she notes.

Kimberly Sullivan, Next Avenue, Gulf War
Kimberly Sullivan

Veterans who think they have contracted COVID-19 should immediately seek care, Sullivan noted. "Veterans are stoic people. They think they can weather it. They're reticent to see doctors. But there's so much we don't know about this virus," she added.

She encouraged veterans to take full advantage of health care opportunities, including telemedicine, which is increasingly available. "They have earned these benefits and they should use them," said Sullivan.

Stephenie Overman
Stephenie Overman writes about workplace and health issues. She is the author of Next-Generation Wellness at Work. Read More
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