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News from the National Academies

Date: Feb. 24, 2006
Contacts: Christine Stencel, Media Relations Officer
Chris Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Air Force Health 'Ranch Hand' Study Data and Materials Merit Further Study
And Should Be Transferred to New, Active Management

WASHINGTON -- The Air Force Health Study (AFHS) – also known as the Ranch Hand Study -- was initiated by the U. S. Air Force in 1979 to assess the possible health effects of military personnel's exposure to Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants sprayed during the Vietnam War, some of which contained dioxin. Although the study is scheduled to end on Sept. 30 of this year, the medical records, data, and biological specimens collected are a trove of valuable research material, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. AFHS's data assets should be transferred to a new custodial organization that would make the materials available for ongoing research, said the committee that wrote the report.

"While it's not a perfect source of information on Vietnam veterans' health, no other collection of data contains such detailed information on these former service members over as long a time period, so further study of these materials is warranted," said David Tollerud, committee chair and chair of the department of environmental and occupational health sciences, University of Louisville, Louisville, Ky. "We believe there are a number of organizations that have the appropriate knowledge and capacity take over management of the specimens and data and foster future research while protecting the privacy and rights of the research participants."

The committee considered several organizations to be viable candidates to manage the AFHS assets. Three – the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Epidemiologic Research and Information Centers based in Boston and Seattle and the Institute of Medicine's Medical Follow-Up Agency – were considered good candidates, but the committee could identify no superior candidate to recommend as the best choice. Other options, such as making the data available through the National Institutes of Health or conducting a competitive process to identify a custodian, could also work. However a custodian is selected, it must be given a secure source of funding to support proper maintenance of the assets, the report says.

To ensure that the rights of veterans who participated in AFHS are protected, the study's current managers should notify all participants prior to Sept. 30 that the study materials are being transferred to a new organization and offer participants the opportunity to decline the inclusion of their data and specimens. The organization that takes over managing the assets should appoint an independent oversight and advisory board to ensure that future studies using the materials are carried out in compliance with legal and ethical standards.

In addition to funding maintenance of the study's assets, Congress should allocate at least $250,000 annually for three years to foster research using the data and specimens, the report says. These funds should be in addition to money already earmarked for health research on veterans and should not be diverted from other studies. Five years after the data assets are put under new management, a committee should assess whether further support should be directed to maintaining access to the data collection.

The report was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The Institute of Medicine is a private, nonprofit institution that provides health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences. A committee roster follows.

A pre-publication version of Disposition of the Air Force Health Study is available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

[ This news release and report are available at http://national-academies.org ]


INSTITUTE OF MEDICINE
Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice

Committee on the Dispostion of the Air Force Health Study

David J. Tollerud, M.D., M.P.H. (chair)
Professor and Chair
Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences
University of Louisville
Louisville, Ky.

Dan G. Blazer, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H.
J.P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry
Duke University Medical Center, and
Professor of Cummunity and Family
Duke University
Durham, N.C.

Ellen Wright Clayton, M.D., J.D.
Rosalind E. Franklin Professor of Genetics and Health Policy, and
Director, Center for Genetics and Health Policy
Vanderbilt University
Nashville, Tenn.

Manning Feinleib, M.D., M.P.H., Dr.P.H.
Professor
Department of Epidemiology
Bloomberg School of Public Health
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore

Mark S. Goldberg, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, and
Medical Scientist, Royal Victoria University
McGill University
Quebec, Canada

Susan E. Hankinson, Sc.D., M.P.H.
Associate Professor of Epidemiology
Harvard School of Public Health
Boston

David A. Kalman, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair
Department of Environmental and Occupational Health
School of Public Health and Community Medicine
University of Washington
Seattle

DeJuran Richardson, Ph.D.
Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science
Lake Forest College
Chicago

Regina M. Santella, Ph.D.
Professor of Environmental Health Sciences
Mailman School of Public Health
Columbia University
New York City

STAFF

David A. Butler, Ph.D.
Study Director