The study by Melvin Blanchard, MD, of Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, and colleagues, included 788 children born to 522 Gulf War-era veterans. Major and minor birth defects, diagnosed by direct physical examination, were compared for offspring of veterans who were and were not deployed during the Gulf War. Women accounted for 28.5 percent of veterans in the study.
Rates of major birth defects were similar for children of deployed versus non-deployed veterans, overall and on analysis of first-born children. There was also no difference in major birth defects among children whose mothers were deployed.
However, minor birth defects were more frequent among children of deployed women: 22 percent, compared to about five percent of children born to non-deployed women. The odds of having a child with a minor birth defect were about five times higher for deployed women. The difference was mainly related to an increased incidence of minor eye and musculoskeletal abnormalities.
Congenital ptosis, or “drooping eyelid,” was the most common birth defect: 13 percent for deployed women versus about two percent for non-deployed women. Exposure to mustard gas and nerve gas were significant predictors of minor birth defects.
Since the mid-1990s, there has been concern that children born to Gulf War veterans might be at increased risk of birth defects, possibly due to toxic exposures during deployment. The new study is unique because birth defects were diagnosed by physical examination, rather than reported by parents.
Although the study shows no increase in major birth defects, it does find a higher risk of minor birth defects in children born to women veterans who were deployed during Gulf War. Dr. Blanchard and colleagues conclude, “Our data emphasize the need to perform a meticulous physical examination looking for birth defects, especially eye and musculoskeletal anomalies, in children born to war veterans who are referred for evaluation of different medical problems.”