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Gulf War Vets` Children Studied (AP) ...Likely birth defects included webbed digits, heart murmurs, chromosomal abnormalities and brain tumors, while excluding what the researchers considered developmental disorders,... - Oct 05 3:05 PM ET


Posted on: 10/05/2001

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Friday October 5 3:05 PM ET "Gulf War Vets' Children Studied"

Gulf War Vets' Children Studied

By SUZANNE GAMBOA, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The children of Gulf War (news - web sites) veterans are two to three times as likely as those of other vets to have birth defects, according to a government study based on interviews with the veterans.

Gulf vets reported more miscarriages, too.

The research, published in this month's Annals of Epidemiology, follows other studies that did not find evidence of greater risk of birth defects.

The latest study, conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs (news - web sites) and Johns Hopkins University scientists, surveyed Gulf and non-Gulf veterans from all four service branches. Just under 21,000 active and retired military, reserve and National Guard members answered questionnaires about their health, reproductive outcomes, exposure to risk factors and other issues.

About 70 percent of those who were sent questionnaires responded.

"Veterans are very concerned that they have a higher risk of bearing children with birth defects," said Dr. Han Kang, a Veterans Affairs epidemiologist and the lead researcher.

"There are two or three studies that tried to address that concern and did not find any evidence of that," Kang said, "and now we are reporting at least a strong possibility of that happening."

The Pentagon (news - web sites) says an estimated 90,000 troops who served in the Gulf War complain of maladies including memory loss, anxiety, fatigue, nausea, balance problems and chronic muscle and joint pain. The ailments are known collectively as Gulf War Syndrome (news - web sites). Some veterans also worry that their war exposure harmed their reproductive health, making them more likely to have babies with serious birth defects.

Millions of dollars have been spent on government studies on the subject. A presidential panel in December concluded that none of the research has validated any specific cause and that more study is needed.

The earlier studies that found no unusual risk of birth problems among Gulf vets were based on reviews of hospital records. Critics say a weakness of the latest study is that it used veterans' opinions of their children's births rather than hospital data. Some suggest, for instance, that Gulf veterans, aware of publicity about Gulf War Syndrome, might be more likely to consider their children as having birth defects.

Kang and his colleagues said they don't believe the results were skewed this way, but are double-checking the veterans' reports against hospital records.

The Pentagon has cited the previous studies in maintaining that Gulf War service and birth defects are not linked. Kang's study is worth further investigation, a Pentagon official said, but he remained skeptical.

"If the risk of having a child with a birth defect was that much increased simply by having served in the Gulf War, I find it hard to believe that previous studies would have missed that," said Dr. Francis O'Donnell, an epidemiologist with the Pentagon's Office of Gulf War Illness, Medical Readiness and Military Deployments.

The study focused on first pregnancies that ended after June 30, 1991. The researchers analyzed information on miscarriages, stillbirths, pre-term delivery, birth defects and infant mortality.

Male Gulf War veterans reported having infants with likely birth defects at twice the rate of non-veterans. Female veterans were almost three times more likely to report children with birth defects than their non-Gulf counterparts.

Likely birth defects included webbed digits, heart murmurs, chromosomal abnormalities and brain tumors, while excluding what the researchers considered developmental disorders, perinatal complications and pediatric illnesses.

Similar differences were found when researchers narrowed the births to those that resulted in moderate to severe birth defects, described as those requiring possible surgery or chronic medical supervision.

Both male and female veterans were more likely to report miscarriages, but the increase was statistically significant only for male Gulf War veterans - 1.62 times as many as non-Gulf War veterans.

The prevalence of stillbirth, pre-term delivery and infant mortality did not differ significantly between the two groups.

Dr. Donald Mattison, March of Dimes medical director, said more research should be done on environmental factors to try to understand the origin of the birth defects. And, he said, doctors should consider the potential link between Gulf War exposure and birth defects when offering reproductive counseling.


On the Net:

Annals of Epidemiology:

Department of Veterans Affairs:

Pentagon office on Gulf War Illness, Medical Readiness and Military Deployments:

March of Dimes:

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