HL Deb 16 January 1997 vol 577 cc271-3

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have commissioned any clinical research on classic principles into the causes of illness in farmers and Gulf veterans which remains undiagnosed; and, if not, why not.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe)

My Lords, there is a clinical aspect to the epidemiological study commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food into the possible long-term health effects of low-level exposure to organophosphorus sheep dips. On the best scientific and medical advice, my department has commissioned epidemiological studies, not clinical research, into the health problems of Gulf veterans and their families. If a particular pattern of symptoms emerges in the Gulf veteran group during the course of these epidemiological studies, the possibility of clinically-based research studies will be reviewed.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that reply. Does he accept that if the research is to be successful it should be concluded fairly quickly because that is what is wanted as these men are sick? Does he further accept that all the hypotheses should be explored—the vaccines, the pesticides, and the possibility of chemical warfare and the changing climate among other things? Does the Minister agree that the effects of these factors should be tested, presumably on animals first, and then against the symptoms that the Gulf veterans are showing? Is he further aware of recent research published in the Journal of American Medical Association yesterday, where three clinical studies were undertaken which irrefutably link organophosphate exposure with pyridostigmine bromide and the Gulf War illness? Will the noble Earl now consider that it is really worth doing clinical studies alongside the epidemiological studies in order to get this matter concluded quickly?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the firm advice of the Medical Research Council to the Ministry of Defence has been that it would be unscientific to conduct causal studies in advance of establishing, through the epidemiological research, whether or not there is a higher prevalence of specific symptoms in Gulf veterans which can be related to specific exposures in the Gulf. I believe that we must accept its advice on that matter. I stress that the doors are not closed on commissioning causal studies if the MRC feels that there is a scientifically valid case for doing so. As regards the second part of the noble Countess's question, I was aware of these reports and I shall be looking at them.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, can the noble Earl give an assurance that all general practitioners who have ex-servicemen and women among their patients are given the information that they should have for our soldiers, sailors and airmen who served in the Gulf?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I can give the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, an absolute assurance that if information is requested by general practitioners we shall give it on a medical confidentiality basis in so far as we are able. Where the information is lacking we shall supply what are our best assumptions about any medical treatment given to Gulf veterans.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the noble Earl will be aware that the Gulf War syndrome, whatever that may mean, is appearing among Czech, Slovak, Danish, American and British soldiers, but not, apparently, among French soldiers. On the assumption that the French are not "loose cannons", to use the current expression, why is that so?

Earl Howe

My Lords, we are in close touch with the French authorities. As the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, correctly said, they have not reported any undue incidence of ill health among their veterans. They do not recognise any medical syndrome connected with the Gulf War. The French authorities have advised that some soldiers returned from the Gulf with minor diseases endemic to the area, but they did not give their troops, as I understand it, any form of protective immunisation against either chemical or biological agents. Nerve agent pre-treatment sets were not taken by the French troops. The French authorities have also advised that their troops did not use organophosphate pesticides or insecticides during the Gulf War.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend to confirm that the French contingent were the only body of troops in the Gulf to be veterans of that type of warfare and that the French alone were used to that type of terrain and were possibly, therefore, safer and more immune from any disease? At the same time, may I ask my noble friend whether he will permit me, and possibly other Members of your Lordships' House, to sympathise with him over the way in which he has been treated in the press today?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for his latter comments. The point that he posed in his first question is extremely interesting.

I do not know the answer as to whether the French were unique in having had that kind of desert war experience. However, the point is worth investigating and I shall write to my noble friend with an answer.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the nature of his answers to the questions put to him this afternoon do not indicate the sense of urgency which is clearly required when dealing with such matters? Will he assure the House that he will not use the obvious desirability of making the widest possible inquiries (although they may take a considerable time) to affect in any way the obvious fact that we have to narrow down our inquiries to the specific points made by the noble Countess?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am sorry that my remarks this afternoon have not conveyed the sense of urgency which the Government do, indeed, feel about these matters. When one is considering scientific research, it is important to leave the matter in the hands of the scientists and the medics. That is what we have done. I hope that the noble Lord will accept my assurance that we are determined to get to the bottom of the matter and that our minds are completely open on the whole question.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, is the Minister aware of a draft report from a committee of the European Parliament criticising the European Commission for drawing scientific advice from too narrow a base? How confident are the Government that their scientific advice is not similarly drawn from too narrow a base?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I do not believe that one could do any better than go to the Medical Research Council, which is what we have done, to commission the research that is about to begin. I have every confidence in its advice.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, may I ask the Minister to study closely the reports in the Journal of American Medical Association because they indicate that the standard handling of epidemiological results and standard neurological tests do not produce the answers that they found in their study? Will the Minister ask those members of the Medical Research Council who are responsible for this to consider the results of the Dallas reports carefully so that our soldiers may be given the same benefits as the American soldiers?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I shall certainly do that and write to the noble Countess. It is interesting to note that the Presidential Advisory Committee report, of which the noble Countess will be aware, which was published in the United States, endorsed the US Government's focus on epidemiological research. I believe that that is a clear vindication of the research programme we announced last December.

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