An extensive study of British veterans of the Gulf War verified what had been previously reported about U.S. and Canadian veterans—that service in the Gulf War posed an exceptionally high risk of a long illness. Those who served were more than twice as likely as other military cohorts to report chronic fatigue, irritability, headache and other symptoms, as well as higher levels of psychological distress.
Furthermore, the study led by Catherine Unwin and published in the Jan. 16, 1999, issue of The Lancet, found that the risk of illness correlated significantly with exposures to potentially harmful substances. Among those factors were vaccination against plague and anthrax before deployment.
The study suggested that the increased stress associated with being deployed to a war zone might have predisposed troops for a unusual response to those toxic exposures. In the same issue of The Lancet, Khalida Ismail and colleagues used factor analysis, a complex statistical method, to identify the symptoms that most clearly defined Gulf War illness. The results—fatigue, muscle pain, insomnia, cognitive problems—were very similar to that found in the United States.
The British researchers said the pattern of symptoms suggested that the illness reported by Gulf War veterans was not a novel or unique disease.
An accompanying editorial by Stephen E. Straus of the National Institutes of Health suggested that there are limited means of preventing chronic illness in future wars. Therefore, “troops must be prepared both physically and emotionally for combat, be provided with routine health surveillance afterward, and be given a commitment for all necessary care for war-related illness,” Straus wrote. He said military scientists need to undertake prospective studies to define pre-existing clinical condition of individuals and the specific experiences that might contribute to the risk of long-term illness, as the outcomes of such studies should benefit the civilian population that suffers from similar illnesses.