Some Gulf War veterans could be at higher risk for COVID-19, expert says

Photo credit Defense Department

Gulf War veterans could be at higher risk for the coronavirus, COVID-19.

Veterans of each generation have had their own versions of toxic exposure. Those who served in the Gulf are no exception. 

Dr. Nancy Klimas, a VA physician and director of the Institute for Neuro-Immune Medicine at Nova Southeastern University, is an expert in what researchers call "Gulf War Illness," which can make veterans more susceptible to infections such as the coronavirus. 

The first Gulf War in 1991 likely exposed service members to the highest level of toxins since World War I, Klimas told Connecting Vets. 

Troops were exposed to nerve agent sarin, organic phosphate, oil-well fires, burn pits, anthrax vaccines and uniforms “impregnated with pesticides,” among others, she said. 

Scientists don’t know precisely which of those many toxins were actually responsible for what researchers now see as Gulf War Illness (GWI), though it’s not yet a formal medical diagnosis.

Today, one in three veterans who deployed in the first Gulf War is sick. As many as 300,000 vets may have the illness, Klimas said. 

“It’s an enormous number of ill people and many of them are disabled,” she said. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Klimas said she is particularly concerned about veterans who have GWI -- many of whom may not know it. 

GWI is an illness "that started with neurotoxin exposures and created a chronic brain disease that is a neuroinflammatory and oxidative stress combination of things happening in the brain that cause a lot of different systems in the body to be affected," Klimas said. 

When the brain is affected this way, the systems the brain regulates -- including the immune system -- can become "out of balance" leading to issues including a weaker immune system, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, cognitive dysfunction, irritable bowel, poor sleep and more. 

And since many veterans may not be diagnosed with Gulf War Illness, or have their symptoms connected to their exposures, they and their doctors may not fully understand how high their risk for the coronavirus is. 

Gulf War Illness researchers could be on track for a cure, but they need veterans' help

Anxiety surrounding the pandemic, how it has affected the economy and more is spiking, and for veterans with GWI, that can make a weakened immune system even worse, Klimas said. 

"Those conditions are made much worse by adrenaline," Klimas said, "which is what your body produces when you're under stress." 

Inside the body of a veteran with GWI are cells that are off-balance and because of that, have limited energy and don't work as well.

"The very cells you want to help clear the virus are having trouble creating the materials needed to kill the virus," she said. 

Increased inflammation from GWI can also make it easier for the virus to penetrate the body.

"GWI veterans are more vulnerable because they have trouble clearing infections and they have more inflammation," Klimas said. "Therefore, the best thing you can possibly do is not get infected." 

How to protect yourself

Klimas said veterans should follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines including washing their hands, staying home unless absolutely necessary and limiting contact with others. 

"Possibly the worst thing you can do is go out and try to get tested," Klimas said, because testing areas carry a higher risk for infection. "If you're having trouble holding your breath for more than 10 seconds (and you don't normally) that may be when you want to get screened," she said, adding that some emergency rooms in Miami won't consider patients if they are not having trouble breathing. 

And there just aren't enough tests to go around, anyway.

"About 80 percent of people with the virus will recover if they just go home and take care of themselves," she said. "It'd be nice if we could all get tested, but you don't necessarily have to know right now. The number of tests we have are in the thousands, not millions. We'd need millions for that level of testing." 

There are some things veterans can do to protect themselves, Klimas said. 

If you or someone you live with has a weakened immune system, people leaving the house should change clothes when they get home and wash their hands and face.

Veterans with GWI can also take proper doses of some supplements to try to strengthen their immune systems, including antioxidants such as CoQ10, N-acetylcysteine or a broad multivitamin full of B vitamins. Klimas said there is some evidence Vitamin C can help boost the immune system, but in megadoses of 1,000-2,000 mg, it can cause harmful side effects such as irritable bowel and urinary issues, so she advised about 500 mg per day, two to three times per day.

Klimas was careful to advise veterans to check with their doctors before adding supplements to their routine to ensure they won't interact with any pre-existing conditions or medications.

She also recommended online pharmacies or manufacturer websites as an option for finding the supplements and wanted against re-sellers such as eBay and Amazon, where counterfeit supplements have been sold. 

"You only want to take proven products reliably sourced," she said. "And stay away from any unproven treatments." 

Working on a cure

There's hope for a GWI cure, Klimas said, but her team and others need veterans for their studies, both healthy and ill. 

For more information, or to join the research, click here.  

“It’s a moonshot, but the good news is there’s hope,” she said. “We’re doing kickass science but nobody knows. We have our shoulder to the boulder, pushing it along. We’ve been at this a long time and we just need help getting it done.”


Need help with toxic exposure? Click here for a list of resources and information on VA and Defense Department registries.

Veterans exposed to burn pits could be at higher risk for COVID-19

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