Background: Various symptoms in military personnel in the Persian Gulf War 1990-91 have caused international speculation and concern. We investigated UK servicemen.
Methods: We did a cross-sectional postal survey on a random sample of Gulf War veterans (Gulf War cohort, n=4248) and, stratified for age and rank, servicemen deployed to the Bosnia conflict (Bosnia cohort, n=4250) and those serving during the Gulf War but not deployed there (Era cohort, n=4246). We asked about deployment, exposures, symptoms, and illnesses. We analysed men only. Our outcome measures were physical health, functional capacity (SF-36), the general health questionnaire, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) multisymptom criteria for Gulf War illness, and post-traumatic stress reactions.
Findings: There were 8195 (65.1%) valid responses. The Gulf War cohort reported symptoms and disorders significantly more frequently than those in the Bosnia and Era cohorts, which were similar. Perception of physical health and ability were significantly worse in the Gulf War cohort than in the other cohorts, even after adjustment for confounders. Gulf War veterans were more likely than the Bosnia cohort to have substantial fatigue (odds ratio 2.2 [95% CI 1.9-2.6]), symptoms of post-traumatic stress (2.6 [1.9-3.4]), and psychological distress (1.6 [1.4-1.8]), and were nearly twice as likely to reach the CDC case definition (2.5 [2.2-2.8]). In the Gulf War, Bosnia, and Era cohorts, respectively, 61.9%, 36.8%, and 36.4% met the CDC criteria, which fell to 25.3%, 11.8%, and 12.2% for severe symptoms. Potentially harmful exposures were reported most frequently by the Gulf War cohort. All exposures showed associations with all of the outcome measures in the three cohorts. Exposures specific to the Gulf were associated with all outcomes. Vaccination against biological warfare and multiple routine vaccinations were associated with the CDC multisymptom syndrome in the Gulf War cohort.
Interpretation: Service in the Gulf War was associated with various health problems over and above those associated with deployment to an unfamiliar hostile environment. Since associations of ill health with adverse events and exposures were found in all cohorts, however, they may not be unique and causally implicated in Gulf-War-related illness. A specific mechanism may link vaccination against biological warfare agents and later ill health, but the risks of illness must be considered against the protection of servicemen.