Gulf war veterans claim victory with births study

Deformities among the children of Gulf war veterans are to be studied as part of a full-scale review by the Ministry of Defence to establish whether there are links between illnesses and service in the Gulf. The study marked a partial victory for 500 veterans of the Gulf war who are taking legal action against the MoD to secure compensation for their illnesses.

A team of specialists, including experts in tropical diseases, toxicology and child defects, will try to establish whether there is a higher incidence of illnesses among the Gulf war veterans and deformities in their children than others who did not go to the Gulf.

So far, around 350 veterans have been screened, but most of the work will be done through statistical checks. Children with abnormalities are already being dealt with by specialists in their local hospitals, but their cases will be collated.

Professor Sir Colin Berry, one of the world's leading specialists in birth defects at the Royal London Hospital, said 350 to 375 babies would be expected to be born with abnormalities out of the 15,000 births likely from the 51,000 troops who served in the Gulf.

The study of abnormalities would try to establish whether the incidence of abnormalities was higher than expected, and whether there were any scientifically proven links to any of the chemical agents used in the Gulf.

Surgeon General Vice-Admiral Tony Revell said: "We are continuing this work not only for the veterans who are ill but also to reassure ourselves that if we have to go to war again our people will continue to be properly and safely protected." He said there was no evidence of a "syndrome" involving a single type of symptoms, which could be clearly identified, but the MoD accepted that some veterans were ill. "I would prefer to call it Persian Gulf Illness as the Americans do," he said.

The studies would concentrate on chronic fatigue syndrome and another group of cases, described by the Royal College of Physicians, as the medically unexplained symptom group, which had revealed no obvious cause for their illnesses.

The MoD has refused to accept the claims by veterans that they were made ill by the cocktail of drugs they took to protect them from chemical weapons in the Gulf War. Of the 37 nations who took part, only about three, the US, Britain and Canada, have reported cases of Gulf War Syndrome. All three issued nerve agent pre-treatment sets (Naps), which could be to blame. Troops combined them with normally harmless vaccines.

The study will examine whether there was an interaction between the vaccinations and the Naps, said Nicholas Soames, the Armed Forces Minister. The MoD was criticised for its "hopelessly inadequate" response to the problem by the Commons select committee on defence last year.

John Reid, a Labour spokesman on defence, said: "This grudging concession has had to be wrung out of Government ministers."