Are Gulf war veterans getting better?

December 11, 2003

Gulf war veterans still have considerably poorer health than other military personnel, but the health gap has narrowed slightly, finds a study in this week's BMJ. A second study shows no increased risk of cancer among Gulf war veterans.

The first study compared the health of members of the UK armed forces who served in the 1991 Gulf war with non-deployed military personnel over a four-year period. Gulf war veterans experienced a modest reduction in fatigue and psychological distress, but a slight worsening of physical functioning.

Gulf war veterans continue to experience symptoms that are considerably worse than other military personnel, say the authors. However, Gulf war veterans are not deteriorating and do not have a higher incidence of new illness, they conclude.

The second study compared cancer rates in 51,721 UK Gulf war veterans and 50,775 non-deployed service personnel in the 11 years since the end of the war.

Incidence of and deaths from cancer in Gulf war veterans was almost identical to that seen in veterans who were not deployed, even after smoking and alcohol consumption, which are known to influence cancer risk, were taken into account.

Furthermore, the risk of cancer was no higher in Gulf war veterans who reported multiple vaccinations or exposure to pesticides or depleted uranium during deployment.

Although this study should provide some reassurance of a lack of association between deployment to the Gulf and increased risk of cancer, the long latent period for cancer means that these groups should continue to be monitored, conclude the authors.


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