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Veterans are entering a Pentagon study on unexplained illnesses from the Persian Gulf War in such high numbers that it could undermine the military's medical program, an independent panel says.

In a report issued Monday, the Institute of Medicine praised the Defense Department for its serious interest in the problem. But it expressed concern that research into so-called Persian Gulf syndrome could be overwhelmed by patient demands for treatment.From April, when the Pentagon registry began, through October, some 9,000 Persian Gulf veterans sought examinations under the program, and the number is growing at more than 1,000 patients a month.

"This is much faster than patients can be cleared through the system," said the institute, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences that the Pentagon commissioned to study the program.

It noted that some program officials have suggested that patients have turned to the registry "to obtain timely high-quality medical care not rapidly available to them otherwise."

This flood of patients has blurred the distinction between research and treatment and could require a "major investment of medical personnel that may affect the Department of Defense's ability to carry out its other medical missions," the report suggested.

The registry was established to collect case study data that may help provide answers as to why thousands of gulf war veterans are suffering from such problems as muscle pain, respiratory and heart problems, hair loss and memory loss.

Among suggested causes are exposure to chemical or biological agents, environmental contamination or use of untested vaccines, but military and Veterans Affairs Department doctors say they have been unable to pinpoint a single cause of the syndrome. The VA has an older registry that already has examined some 30,000 veterans.

The Institute of Medicine said a summary of the first several hundred patients suggests that definite diagnoses can be reached for most, with only a "small fraction" remaining unclear.

One way to make the study more efficient would be to curtail work-ups on patients with minor complaints, it said. "Care must be taken, however, to avoid premature closure," it added. Both the Pentagon and the VA have been criticized by veterans groups for ignoring, or making light of, the health complaints of veterans.