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Rumors shaped veterans' view of Gulf War ills: syndrome was defined by informal communication.

After the bullets stopped flying the rumors took off among British veterans of the 1991 Gulf War. Early accounts of physical and emotional reactions to wartime experiences spread from one person to another through networks of veterans. Within a few years, these former soldiers had decided among themselves that the symptoms they were suffering from collectively amounted to the controversial illness known as Gulf War Syndrome, a new study concludes.

Simon Wessely of King's College London and his colleagues analyzed extensive written accounts provided in 1996 by 1,100 British Gulf War vets.

The research team doesn't regard the rumors as necessarily untrue or misleading, Rumor proved to be critical among the British Gulf War vets because it counteracted a lack of communication from military and government authorities, Wessely says. Vets turned to their own social grapevine for answers, Wessely's group reports in a paper to appear in Social Science & Medicine.

Symptoms attributed to Gulf War Syndrome include joint and muscle pain, bouts of depression or violent behavior, and various cancers. Some researchers regard the condition as a psychological disorder related to combat stress. Others contend that it's a physical disorder caused by exposure to toxic substances.

Wessely says current medical consensus holds that the veterans do display high rates of various health problems, but these conditions don't constitute a discrete illness.

In a commentary to be published with the new study, Thomas Shriver of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and Sherry Cable of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville say that Wessely's team appears to regard veterans' symptoms as purely psychological and perhaps partly invented out of rumor. "The authors come perilously close to blaming the victims," the two sociologists contend.

But, Wessely responds, "Far from blaming vets, we are shifting the spotlight to the role of governments in allowing an information vacuum to develop regarding potential health risks, which allowed rumors to spread and gain currency after the war."

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Title Annotation:Humans
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 8, 2008
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