Gulf War veterans face no unusual risk of having babies with birth defects, as some have feared, according to a large study.
The study reviewed the records of more than 75,000 newborns from 1991 through 1993. It found the number of birth defects among war veterans’ children was identical to that among the babies of military people who were stationed elsewhere. It also was virtually the same as the risk among civilians.
“We think this is reassuring news,” said David N. Cowan, an epidemiologist at SRA Technologies of Falls Church, Va.
Many Gulf War veterans have complained of a variety of unexplained symptoms, including fatigue, diarrhea, memory problems and trouble sleeping. Some also worry that their war exposure harmed their reproductive health, making them more likely to have babies with serious birth defects.
To study this idea, Cowan and others from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research looked at all the births at 135 military hospitals. The results were published in today’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
The study found that 1.9 percent of Gulf War veterans’ babies had severe birth defects, identical to the number among veterans who did not serve in the Gulf. The veterans’ fertility also appeared to be unaffected by their war duty.
“The bottom line was we were not able to find any difference between Gulf War veterans and other active duty people who did not go to the war,” Cowan said.
The study covered 68 percent of all births to active duty personnel during the three years reviewed.
Betty Mekdeci, director of the Association of Birth Defect Children in Orlando, Fla., said the study had drawbacks that could have missed an increase in war-related birth defects.
She noted that it did not include babies from high-risk pregnancies that were sent to civilian hospitals, and it did not focus specifically on the children of veterans who were exposed to possible toxins in the Gulf.
The study “certainly doesn’t reassure me,” she said.