Science in Society Archive

Health & the Fluid Genome

In her new book, Living with the Fluid Genome, Mae-Wan Ho writes,

"The responsiveness of genes and genomes to the environment makes clear that the only way to keep genes and genomes constant and healthy is to have a balanced ecology... On the other hand, it is definitely futile to think that we can go on ruining our ecosystem and stay healthy so long as we have 'good' genes... Genes, unlike diamonds, are not forever."

This miniseries offers new insights into how major chronic diseases arise from the inability to take the fluid genome seriously, and how strategies to combat the diseases are similarly misguided and dangerous.

  1. AIDS Vaccines Worse Than Useless?
  2. Dynamic Genomics
  3. Molecular Genetic Engineers in Junk DNA?
  4. SARS Virus Genetically Engineered?
  5. Endo Viruses and Chronic Disease
  6. Vaccines, Gulf-War Syndrome & Bio-defence

Vaccines, Gulf-War Syndrome & Bio-defence

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Malcolm Hooper report on evidence linking vaccines to Gulf-War Syndrome and the controversial US Department of Defence program to immunize millions of service personnel against anthrax.

Gulf-War Syndrome (GWS) refers to a collection of symptoms in soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), or Gulf War 1. These symptoms include rash, severe fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headache, irritability, depression, unrefreshing sleep, gastrointestinal and respiratory disorders and neurological cognitive defects.

Apart from being exposed to a wide range of environmental hazards and toxic chemicals, US and UK Gulf War I veterans (GW1Vs) were also given large numbers of vaccines. In total, the US GW1Vs received, at least, 17 different vaccines [1] including live vaccines (polio and yellow fever as well as experimental vaccines that had not been approved (anthrax, botulinum toxoid) and were of doubtful efficacy [2]. In the UK, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has declared only 10 vaccines given, but records exist to show that some troops received a greater number [3]. Among them were two experimental vaccines, anthrax with pertussis as an adjuvant (shown in 1990 to cause serious deconditioning in mice) [4], and plague, given to UK but not USA troops [1]. The manufacturers of pertussis were not advised of the unlicensed use on GW1Vs [1,4].

Vaccine overload was identified as a significant factor in GWS. Steele [5] carried out a population survey of 1,548 GW1Vs from Kansas and 482 veterans who served elsewhere in 1998. GWS, defined as having chronic symptoms in three out of six domains occurred in 34% GW1Vs, 12% non-GW1Vs who reported receiving vaccines during the war but were not deployed, and 4% of non-GW1Vs who did not. There was thus a three-fold increase in GWS due to vaccinations alone.

This same study showed that the prevalence of GWS was lowest among GW1Vs who served on board ships (21%) and highest among those who were in battle in Iraq and/or Kuwait (42%), regardless of when they left the region. Among GW1Vs who served in the region but away from battlefields, GWS was least among those who departed the region prior to the war (9%) and most prevalent among those who departed in June or July 1991 (41%).

As practically all GW1Vs received vaccinations, the 9% GW1V who served away from the battlefield and departed the region prior to the war and contracted GWS is well in excess of non-GW1Vs who were not vaccinated (4%), and again indicates that the vaccinations significantly increased the risk of GWS. The stress of war might have thought to account for the increase in prevalence of GWS among those who served in the battlefield rather than on board the ship. But this cannot explain the increase in GWS with length of service in the region away from the battlefield, which strongly implicates synergistic effects due to exposures to environmental hazards and toxic chemicals in Iraq and /or Kuwait (see "Dynamic genomics and health", this series.)

These findings are consistent with those from other studies. A link between vaccinations and illness has been found among GW1Vs from UK and Canada [6].

A team of doctors and scientists in the UK carried out an investigation by postal survey on a random sample of Gulf War veterans compared with those deployed in Bosnia (Bosnia cohort) and those serving during the Gulf War but not deployed there (the Era cohort) [7].

The Gulf War veterans reported symptoms and disorders significantly more frequently than the Bosnia and Era cohorts. They were more likely to have substantial fatigue, post-traumatic stress, and psychological distress and were nearly twice as likely to reach CDC case definition of Gulf War illness.

Vaccination against biological warfare and multiple routine vaccinations were clearly associated with Gulf-War illness in the Gulf War veterans. The association rose with the number of vaccinations received. The odds ratio (which measures the association) increased from 0.9 (95% confidence interval, CI: 0.7-1.2) for 1-2 vaccinations, to1.2 (CI: 1.0-1.4) for 3-6 vaccinations, to 1.8 (CI: 1.5-2.2) for 7 or more vaccinations, whereas no such association was found in veterans deployed in Bosnia or serving during the Gulf War but not deployed there.

A subsequent analysis by the same team [3] suggested that there was, further, a big difference as to whether the men were vaccinated before or during deployment. Receipt of multiple vaccines before deployment was associated with only one of the six health outcomes (post -traumatic stress reaction). By contrast, five of the six outcomes, Gulf War illness, fatigue, psychological distress, health perception and physical functioning were associated with multiple vaccines during deployment. The strongest association was for Gulf War illness, odds ratio 5.0 (CI: 2.5 to 9.8). They concluded that multiple vaccination combined with "stress" of deployment might be responsible for the adverse health outcomes. After much criticism, this conclusion was withdrawn [8] and all vaccinations recognised, wherever given, as contributing to GWS.

Vaccines contain viral genomes that could contribute to the genetic recombination (gene shuffling) that now appears to be linked to GWS (see "Dynamic genomics", this series). Vaccines also contain 'adjuvants' that stimulate the immune system and are also immunogenic.

At the time of the Gulf War, two new vaccination programmes were started to protect troops against plague and anthrax. A 1998 study of Canadian GW1Vs [9] found a significant association between receiving "non-routine immunizations" (anthrax, plague) and several symptom-defined outcomes.

In a 'blinded' study of 58 GW1Vs [10], a high proportion of those overtly ill with GWS (95%) had antibodies against squalene, an unapproved polymer used as an adjuvant in experimental vaccines. Not only that, all 8 GW1V (100%) who were vaccinated but not deployed, and nevertheless suffering from GWS, also tested positive for antibodies against squalene. In contrast, none of the 12 deployed GW1V not showing signs and symptoms of GWS had antibodies to squalene, nor did the 48 healthy controls.

Two control subjects, A and B, who tested positive had volunteered to participate in a vaccine trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) involving the use of a squalene-containing adjuvant. Subsequent to vaccination, they developed a multi-system disorder similar to GWS. Patient A received a single injection and became ill within 3 weeks. This patient had lower than normal acetylcholinesterase and histological evidence of IgG-mediated demyelination (losing the myelin cells that are wrapped around nerve cells). The NIH vaccine study code was broken; only adjuvant containing squalene had been administered as a placebo. This patient was weakly positive for anti-squalene antibodies (ASA). Patient B went through the complete experimental vaccination protocol before becoming ill and was more strongly reactive for ASA.

Antibodies to squalene were not detected in 30 subjects with silicone breast implants. Patients (40) with systemic lupus erythematosus had 10% weakly positive reaction for ASA. Patients (30) suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome have some of the signs and symptoms of GWS but only 15% were weakly positive.

The results suggest that ASA was a marker for GWS. In a broader study, antibodies to squalene were tested in blood samples from GW1Vs from different medical centres. This group tested 69% positive for ASA. The samples were not segregated according to their clinical status and included healthy controls.

Squalene is a naturally occurring molecule absorbed from food, and synthesized as a precursor for cholesterol, myelin, and steroid hormones. Although not approved by the FDA for human use, squalene has been incorporated as an adjuvant in experimental vaccines since 1987. It is not unlikely that at least some of the vaccines given to GW1Vs had contained squalene. Squalene has been found to induce severe local and systemic reactions in humans when used with influenza vaccine and gp120 vaccines against HIV-1. When used as an adjuvant for simian immunodeficiency vaccine in macaques, the animals developed anti-human-cell antibodies and autoimmune-like symptoms. Squalene has indeed been used extensively as an adjuvant in animal models to induce autoimmune diseases.

That was not the end of the story. The US Department of Defence (DoD) initiated the anthrax vaccine immunization program (AVIP) in 1997 to immunize 2.4 million military personnel. Adverse reactions in vaccinated personnel were similar to symptoms of GWS. In a pilot study by the same research team, 6 of 6 vaccine recipients with GWS-like illness were positive for ASA [11]. In a larger blinded study, only 32% (8/25) of AVIP personnel compared to 15.7% (3/19) controls were positive. Further analysis revealed that ASA were associated with specific lots of vaccine that contained squalene. The incidence of ASA in personnel in the blinded study receiving these lots was 47% (8/17) compared to an incidence of 0% receiving other lots of vaccines.

All ASA positive individuals were ill, while only 5 out of the 17 ASA negative individuals were ill, but they too received the lots of vaccines containing squalene; obviously antibodies to squalene need not be produced for illness to occur.

The amounts of squalene, in four of the five lots of anthrax vaccine for which antibodies were found was determined by the FDA to be 10-83 parts per billion. These levels have been dismissed as too low to have an immunological effect. But, the authors points out, even before the molecular nature of antibodies was fully appreciated, it was accepted that as little as a single molecule of antigen could stimulate antibody production [12].

In a written testimony to US House of Representatives, September 30, 1999 [13], Meryl Nass M.D. pointed out that,

In the same testimony, Nass pointed out that the most important means of protection against bioweapons and the only one likely to defeat any strain of anthrax and most microorganisms is the facemask, and not vaccines. Vaccines can protect only against known specific strains. The DoD's own information paper states, "all medical prophylactic modalities described should be viewed only as secondary." and "Preventing exposure of the respiratory tract and mucous membranes to infectious and/or toxic aerosols through use of a full-face respirator will prevent exposure, and should, theoretically, obviate the need for additional measures. Chemical protective masks effectively filter biological hazards."

Nass and other non-government experts on biological warfare feel that anthrax is a good terrorist weapon but a poor battlefield weapon, and not worth the risk to service personnel.

But the DoD is unrepentant. On the contrary, since September 11, 2001, it has been forcing the same anthrax vaccine on soldiers, who risk disciplinary action if they refuse.

U.S. Army Reserve Spc. Rachael Lacy, 22, of Lynwood, died in April after receiving the vaccination, along with a smallpox inoculation. A coroner ruled the shots contributed to her death, but this was denied by the military.

The reason the vaccination is mandated is because "the military works as a team," Col. John Grabenstein, deputy director for military vaccines for the Army surgeon general, is reported to have said in an article in the New York Times [14]. "If you and I are on the same team and I refuse it, your chances of survival are lessened by my refusal."

But Maj. Thomas "Buzz" Rempfer of the Connecticut Air National Guard felt ordering the vaccines would be improper. He refused to take the vaccine in 1998 and was subsequently grounded. Rempfer said he personally believes the military simply is not willing to admit they made a mistake. "They're doing their darnedest to ignore it," Rempfer said. "The project itself was so massive in its scope, and so many people invested their integrity in the program, to have it fail would be unacceptable."

The DoD contracted with then-Michigan Biologic Products (now BioPort Corp.) of Lansing, Mich., in 1998 to provide the anthrax vaccine to its service personnel. BioPort is the sole manufacturer of the anthrax vaccine and therefore, the sole government contractor for the product.

In the same year, U.S. Secretary of the Army Luis Caldera granted BioPort indemnity under Public Law 85-804, which guarantees the company immunity from litigation related to the anthrax vaccine. The law states that only liabilities that arise in cases where the federal contractor is engaged in "unusually hazardous or nuclear risks" are covered. BioPort was sold the day after Caldera granted indemnity. One of the partners in the purchase was Adm. William Crowe, President Reagan's former head of the joint chiefs of staff, and Ambassador to Britain during Clinton's administration, a post he left when he bought BioPort.

Since then, some half-million members of the military have received the vaccine. All 2.4 million military personnel are scheduled to receive the inoculations.

Numerous litigations have been brought against BioPort, most, though not all thrown out on procedural grounds.

Because of the continued denials of any association of vaccines with GWS, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) have gone on to make the same mistakes as before in preparing for the Gulf War II. Eleven soldiers are bringing a case for vaccine damage against the MoD [15].

Article first published 11/07/03


  1. Hooper M. The most toxic war in western military history. Evidence submitted to the House of Commons Select Defence Committee, December 1999. Published in 7th Report of Defence Select Committee Gulf Veterans' Illnesses. Report and proceedings of the Committee with Minutes of Evidence and Appendices, 19 April 2000. Report of the Special Investigation Unit of Gulf War Illnesses, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, United States Senate,Chairman Arlen Specter, 105th Congress, Part 1, 1997, p.1221ff.
  2. Nass M. Testimony to Committee on Government Reform, Hearing on Anthrax Vaccine Safety, April 29th , 1999. See also the comprehensive documentation at
  3. Hotopf M, David A, Hull L, Ismail K, Unwin C. and Wessely S. Role of vaccinations as risk factors for ill health in veterans of the Gulf war: cross sectional study. BMJ 2000, 320, 1363-7.
  4. Background to the use of Medical Counter measures to Protect British Forces during the Gulf War (Operation Granby). MOD October 1997.
  5. Steele L. Prevalence and patterns of Gulf War illness in Kansas veterans: association of symptoms with characteristics of person, place and time of military service. Am J Epidemiology 2000, 152, 992-1002.
  6. Rook GAW, Zumla A. Gulf War syndrome: is it due to a systemic shift in cytokine balance towards a Th2 profile? Lancet 1997, 349, 1831-3.
  7. Unwin C, Baltchley N, Coker W, Ferry S, Hotopf M, Hull L, Ismail K, Palmer I, David A and Wessely S. Health of UK servicemen who served in Persian Gulf War. The Lancet 1999, 353, 169-78.
  8. Electronic Responses. Hooper M and Others at eLetters for Hotopf et al., 320 (7246) 1363-1367
  9. Goss Gilroy, inc. Health study of Canadian forces peronnel involved in the 1991 conflict in the Persian Gulf. Vol a. Prepared for Gulf War Illness Advisory committee, Department of National Defence. Ottawa, Canada: Depratment of National Defence, 1998 ( )
  10. Asa PB, Cao Y and Garry RF. Antibodies to squalene in Gulf War Syndrome. Exp mol pathol 2000, 68, 55-64.
  11. Asa PB, Wilson RB and Garry RF. Antibodies to squalene in recipients of anthrax vaccine. Exp Mol Pathol 2002, 73, 19-27.
  12. Cannon PR, Antibody production and the anamnestic reaction. J. Lab Clin Med 1942, 28, 127-39.
  13. Written Statement of Meryl Nass, M.D. Freeport, Maine, Before the Submcommittee on Military Personnel, Steve Buyer, Chairman, House Armed Services Committee, US House of Representatives, September 30, 1999.
  14. "Anthrax vaccine a deadly defense?" by Lauri Harvey, New York Times 22 June 2003,
  15. Cammock L. Chairman Gulf Veterans' Association, information provided to Gulf Support Group Meeting, Royal British Legion, 3rd July 2003.

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