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Epidemiology Research Proposals

Volume 281: debated on Wednesday 17 July 1996

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To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many outline research proposals were received for the epidemiology programme to be initiated by the Medical Research Council at the request of his Department; what proposals in other fields besides epidemiology have been received by the MRC; if there is a deadline; how much of his Department's funding will be made available for these studies; and if he will make a statement. [37430]

Work on establishing the detailed programme of research into Gulf health issues, which I announced on 30 January, Official Report, columns 607–608, is progressing well. As I announced at that time, the work is being overseen by the Medical Research Council, whose independent supervision of the research programme will ensure an objective, impartial and scientific approach and compliance with the highest professional standards.Following a period of assessment of the most appropriate areas for research, the MRC issued its call for research proposals in scientific and medical journals at the end of May. I understand that it has already received 37 outline proposals for research in a variety of fields. Those have been submitted in confidence, and I am therefore not able to detail the precise areas which they cover. All the proposals are now being thoroughly evaluated by a scientific advisory committee, appointed by the MRC, which includes some of the most eminent medical experts in the relevant fields. The MRC will then invite the most promising applicants to submit substantive proposals by the end of August.The final research programme is expected to include both epidemiological studies to compare the prevalence of illness among Gulf war veterans and similar control groups, including the relative incidence of birth defects among their children, and studies to investigate other aspects of Gulf health-related issues such as any possible interaction between the vaccinations administered to personnel serving in the Gulf and the nerve agent pre-treatment sets, with which they were issued.Final decisions on the research projects to be funded will be made in November. My Department will meet the full costs of those research projects recommended by the MRC as being the most appropriate.We are keeping in close touch with US plans for research in similar fields to ensure that work is not duplicated, and that our respective programmes cover all aspects of this important issue. The US authorities have recently announced their plans for 12 major research studies, one of which is to be undertaken by Dr. Simon Wessely of King's college school of medicine. We will continue to liaise with the US authorities as this work progresses.

In parallel with the research programmes I have described, we continue to offer assessment and counselling services under the medical assessment programme established in 1993 to all serving and ex-service personnel who may be concerned about their health. Six hundred and thirty-five individual veterans have now been examined on the programme. Additional resources have been made available both to support the clinical programme itself and to develop the comprehensive database necessary for a full analysis of the programme's overall results to date. Group Captain Coker, the principal consultant on the programme, expects to publish a report on his findings to date later this year.

On the basis of the examination of veterans undertaken so far, there is no evidence that there is any unique syndrome or illness associated specifically with Gulf service. The Government, nevertheless, retain an open mind. The painstaking, detailed approach I have outlined, which will of necessity take time, is soundly and scientifically based, and illustrates our total commitment to the health of our service personnel.