Lou Gehrig's cases prompt investigation of Kelly Air Force Base

Friday, October 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN ANTONIO (AP) _ A suspected high occurrence of Lou Gehrig's disease among former and current workers at Kelly Air Force Base has prompted a federal investigation to determine if the base is to blame.

The disease, scientifically known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, has struck 16 workers in recent years, killing five people, the local ALS Association says.

ALS statistically affects fewer than two out of 100,000 people each year in the United States, leaving some experts baffled by the high numbers at the air base. An ongoing environmental cleanup of Kelly and its associated health-risk studies have only heightened suspicions.

``I don't think this is a witch hunt of any sorts,'' Mary Klenke, local ALS Association president, told the San Antonio Express-News in Friday's editions. ``We just feel that there are an extraordinary number of cases and this should be looked into. We don't think that's too much to ask.''

The Air Force is in the preliminary stages of its inquiry, primarily to determine if the cases are a cluster that can be traced to the base, said Lt. Col. Roger Gibson.

``I'm concerned whenever I see cases of disease that are even considered by someone to be a cluster,'' Gibson said. ``But am I alarmed? No, not until I get more information and we work through this.''

Scientists still know little about what causes ALS, named after the former baseball player who died of the disease. People with certain jobs _ pilots, soldiers, professional athletes, dairy farmers _ have higher occurrences, but no one is sure why.

Typically, people with ALS first suffer from weakness in the hands or feet, or from difficulty speaking. As more nerve cells die and muscles waste, victims progressively lose control of their bodies until they are totally paralyzed. Finally, they are unable to swallow or breathe.