The New England Journal of Medicine will publish tomorrow an epidemiologic study of more than 75,000 children of Gulf War veterans and other service members on active duty during the period of the war. The study found that children of veterans were not at increased risk of birth defects nor are these children at increased risk for a group of specific congenital malformations defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as being of public health concern.
According to study leader David Cowan, Ph.D., "This study provides strong scientific evidence that the children of Gulf War veterans are not more likely to suffer birth defects. It is important that concerned Gulf War veterans understand that we found no evidence that they are more likely than a non-deployed Gulf-era military service member to have a child born with birth defects. Our work suggests that service in the Gulf War should not affect family planning or a veteran's decision on childbearing. We hope that healthcare providers who treat veterans and their families will share these findings with their patients."
The epidemiologists conducting the study identified 579,000 active duty men and women who served in the Gulf War, and selected a corresponding sample of 700,000 active duty service members who were not deployed. All live births conceived after these Gulf War veterans returned from the war (or after January 1, 1991 for non-deployed veterans) and occurring in military hospitals prior to October 1993 were included in the study.
The computerized medical records of 30,151 children born to male Gulf War veterans were compared to 32,638 children born to male non-deployed veterans; and those of 3,847 children of female Gulf War veterans were compared to 8,825 children of female non-deployed veterans.
Overall, the comparisons for both men and women Gulf War veterans showed that risks for severe defects for children were not any different from the comparison groups. Since the study was based on records of live births, events such as spontaneous abortions or miscarriages could not be evaluated.
The researchers also evaluated two other aspects of reproduction. They found that the proportion of Gulf War veterans having children following the war was not different from the number among non-deployed veterans. This indicates no reduction in fertility. Second, the researcher found that the number of boy babies compared to girl babies did not vary between the study groups.
Cdr. Greg Gray, coordinator of a series of related epidemiological studies and co-reseacher on the study being released tomorrow said, "The work that will be published is the first large study of its kind examining birth defects among the children of Gulf War veterans. The study had much statistical power to detect differences between Gulf War veteran children and children of military families and found none. While this study should be validated by some of the other large reproductive outcome studies which are now in progress, it offers very important information to the scientific community and to Gulf War veteran families. The Federal government is conducting about 90 other studies to address the health concerns of Persian Gulf War veterans and their families."
Dr. Edward Martin, acting assistant secretary of Defense (Health Affairs) stated, "While this report does not answer all questions about the effect the war may have had on veterans and their families, the findings in this large study provide some reassurance, in that no association was found between birth defects among children born in military hospitals and Gulf War service."
Cowan observed that this study is one of a series of Gulf War investigations being conducted or coordinated by the Naval Health Research Center (NHRC) in San Diego, Calif. Cowan, who is a research epidemiologist with SRA Technologies Inc., Falls Church, Va., worked with several other investigators including Lt. Col. Robert DeFraites, an Army physician and preventive medicine officer at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), Cdr. Greg Gray, a Navy physician and preventive medicine officer at the NHRC, and Mary Goldenbaum, a statistician and programmer at WRAIR. The fifth author, Dr. Samuel Wishik, was with the University of California at San Diego until his death shortly before the paper was submitted for publication.