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U.S. combat troops returning from Iraq face major health peril: New Scientist



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PARIS, Aug 24 (AFP) - US combat troops traumatised by their experiences in Iraq may suffer long-term damage to their physical health, as well as known risks to their mental well-being, the British magazine New Scientist warns.

"Veterans will be paying the price of combat for decades to come," it says in its next issue, out on Saturday.

Doctors are already familiar with the psychological impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the modern name for shell shock, a term coined in World War I.

People with PTSD can suffer from grim flashbacks, wild mood swings, bouts of depression, insomnia and anxiety, are prone to drug and alcohol abuse and are likelier to die of accidents, overdoses and suicide.

But evidence is also emerging of a link between PTSD and physical disease, and the symptoms may emerge years after trauma, New Scientist says.

Soon-to-be published research by New York Academy of Medicine epidemiologist Joseph Boscarino found "stark differences" in physical health among veterans with PTSD as a result of combat and those with non-combat PTSD.

Boscarino revisited a US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study into the long-term health of 18,000 Vietnam veterans.

He was surprised to discover that those with combat PTSD were much likelier to die from heart disease and cancer than those with non-combat PTSD, New Scientist says.

The big difference cannot be explained by differences in smoking habits and Boscarino suspects that the blame may lie with high levels of stress hormones which disrupt the immune system.

In March, Tel Aviv University researchers published a study which revealed that, among Israeli veterans of fighting in Lebanon in 1982, those with PTSD were now twice as likely to have high blood pressure, ulcers and diabetes, and five times likelier to have heart disease and headaches when compared with non-PTSD counterparts.

US Army doctors, writing in The New England Journal of Medicine in July last year, concluded that more than 17 percent of US veterans from Iraq could be affected by PTSD, a rate that translates to around 60,000 people so far.

The more firefights Iraq veterans experienced, the likelier they were to have PTSD, they found.

The figure for Iraq was similar with that of Vietnam veterans (15 percent), who experienced similar close-combat stresses of roadside bombs, ambushes and guerrilla attacks and witnessing death and injuries to colleagues and civilians.

In contrast, the PTSD rate among US veterans of the first Gulf War were put at between two and 10 percent. Rates of PTSD among the general US population are estimated at three to four percent, the US Army doctors said.

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COPYRIGHT 2005 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

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