No Increased Risk of Birth Defects Among Children of Persian Gulf War Veterans

One of the troubling legacies of the 1990-1991 Desert Storm action in Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia has been the concern that the health of American servicemen who saw duty during the war has been affected adversely. Suspected health problems have included increased rates of birth defects in the children born to these veterans. It should be noted that nearly one million American servicemen were deployed to the Persian Gulf from August 1990 to July 1991.

A large study of the offspring of Gulf War veterans was conducted in 135 military hospitals.1 A database of more than 75,000 births between 1991 and 1995 was analyzed for demographic characteristics, service record, and the presence of any birth defect in the newborn.

The study was able to generate a cohort of 33,998 infants born to Gulf War veterans. These infants were compared to 41,463 born to contemporary service people who had not served in the Gulf. The service parents of both groups were similar for age, race, and gender. The overall risk for any birth defect in the Gulf veteran groups was 7.09 compared to 7.17 in the non-deployed group. The risk of severe birth defects was 1.85% in the Gulf War veteran offspring compared to 1.86 in the non-deployed group. Gender of the parent and time spent in the Gulf had no effect on these risks.

There are limitations to this study. Only children born in military hospitals were included. Children born after their parents left active duty and reserve personnel were also excluded. Because the study was limited to live births, there is no information concerning aborted or stillborn fetuses. Further, the study made no attempt to identify a subpopulation of Gulf War veterans who may have had a more intense environmental exposure to potentially teratogenic agents. Finally, the study was conducted by individuals with strong ties to the Armed Services. Despite these concerns, it seems unlikely that service in the Gulf area in the early 1990s resulted in an increased risk of birth defects in the subsequently born infants of Gulf War veterans. —hap

Reference

1. Cowan DN, et al. The risk of birth defects among children of Persian Gulf War veterans. N Engl J Med 1997;367:1650-1656.