Task to study Iraq illnesses

Researchers with the Veterans Health Administration will look at medical records and stored tissue samples from 450 military dogs deployed to the Middle East between 2003 and 2007 to see whether they hold clues to illnesses suffered by troops sent to the region.

As part of the Veterans Affairs Department’s Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses Task Force effort, VA will create a research database of the working dogs’ records to determine any trends in canine diseases, as well as commonalities with human sicknesses and environmental exposures.

The researchers will look at records from the Military Working Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and specimens from animal autopsies at the Joint Pathology Center in Silver Spring, Md., as part of an effort to gather information on the environment in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The idea is to see whether the dogs’ health histories can lend insight into current and future health concerns for humans, with the dogs serving as health “sentinels” — much like a canary in a coal mine, said Dr. Michael Peterson, a consultant to VA’s Post-Deployment Strategic Healthcare Group.

“When the bird fell over, you knew it was time to get out of the coal mine,” Peterson said. “There is some literature out there that has looked at things like cancers in animals that may have been related to environmental causes; there’s a consensus that this is certainly worth exploring.”

Recommendations for the study were made by the Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses Task Force, initially formed to explore illnesses related to duty in the 1991 Gulf War and suggest ways to treat veterans of that conflict.The task force has “morphed over time” to investigate troops’ environmental exposures in the region over the past two decades, Peterson said.

Gulf War veterans may have been exposed to a host of environmental health hazards — among them, low doses of nerve gas and chemical munitions, preventive nerve-agent pills, pesticides and depleted uranium, according to a 2004 VA report.

Veterans of the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may have experienced similar exposures.“It’s still the same region of the world,” Peterson said. “We’re still concerned about the air in that area, and there are things we need to be concerned about in terms of pollution.”

The study is not the first by Peterson to search for links between canine and human health. In 2001, he and others examined the records of 118 military working dogs from operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm to see whether they had infectious or parasitic diseases that might have been passed along to human troops.

They found that 21 percent of the dogs’ visits to the veterinarians were for potential species-jumping illnesses, but did not find any cases of the dogs transmitting the diseases to service members.

By Patricia Kime - Military Times
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