Researchers found the infants born to male veterans of the 1991 war had higher rates of two types of heart valve defects. They also found a higher rate of a genital urinary defect in boys conceived after the war to Gulf War veteran mothers.
In addition, Gulf War veterans’ children born after the war had a certain kidney defect that was not found in Gulf War veterans’ children born before the war.
The researchers said they did not have enough information to link the birth defects to possible exposures to poisonous gases, pesticides and other toxic substances, which many Gulf War veterans suspect are culprits of their mysterious illnesses and their children’s health problems. They also did not have access to parents’ family histories and job exposures.
The study by the Department of Defense Naval Health Research Center and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined birth defect data from 1989-93.
In all, researchers identified 11,961 children born to Gulf War veterans and 33,052 children of veterans who had not been deployed in the Gulf. Of those, 450 had mothers who served in the Gulf and 3,966 had non-deployed mothers.
They found four sons of female Gulf War veterans — a 6.5% higher rate than nondeployed female veterans — with a condition known as hypospaedia. Boys born with the condition have urethra openings located in the middle or the back of the penis.
In postwar conceived infants of male Gulf War veterans, researchers found 10 children with tricuspid valve insufficiency, a 2.7% higher rate, and five with aortic valve spinosis, 6% higher. Both are conditions in which heart valves do not function properly.
Five postwar children of male Gulf War veterans had renal aegenisis, a condition in which part of the kidney fails to grow and develop properly.
“It will be worthwhile to explore the causal relationship between wartime exposure, the occurrence of the four specific defects and the exposures of Gulf War veterans,” said Dr. Maria Rosa Araneta, a perinatal epidemiologist teaching at the University of California, San Diego. She worked for the naval center when the study was conducted.
The study was published in the April edition of Birth Defects Research.
Researchers continue to hunt for possible causes of the illnesses experienced by thousands of veterans from the first Gulf War. Many vets have complained of chronic fatigue, migraines, balance problems, chronic joint pain and other symptoms. Some veterans were more likely to report birth defects in their offspring in a 2001 Veterans Affairs study.
Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Deployment Health Support office, said the study “should not be used to say we found an answer.”
The study did not find significant increases in rates of multiple birth defects in Gulf War veterans’ children, he noted. But Araneta said differences are usually found when specific forms of a disease are studied, such as breast cancer rates versus overall cancer rates.
The authors’ also said in the study, larger sample sizes were needed for individual, less frequent birth defects, which Kilpatrick also noted.
Decades after the Vietnam War, Veterans Affairs provided health care and compensation for some Vietnam veterans’ children with certain birth defects.
“We think they should do the same for Gulf War veterans. These children have very serious and extraordinary problems and families have broken up over it,” said Betty Mekdeci, executive director of the Association for Birth Defects Children.
CDC researcher Larry Edmonds said the study also demonstrates the value of statewide birth defects registries. Currently, 11 states have “active” registries in which a public nurse looks at several sources for comprehensive data on children with birth defects.