A study undertaken by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has shown that veterans of the 1990-1 Gulf War have a small increased risk of becoming infertile. The researchers, who reported their findings in the British Medical Journal, wanted to examine the theory that exposure to toxicants while in the Gulf could affect sperm production, one indicator of reduced fertility.
The researchers studied 24,379 male Gulf war veterans alongside a control group of 18,439 servicemen not deployed in the Gulf. They issued postal questionnaires and found from the responses that infertility (in terms of failure to achieve conceptions or live births within a year of trying) was reported more frequently among the Gulf veteran group. The failure to achieve conceptions was 2.5 per cent in this group, compared to 1.7 per cent in the control group. A study of failure to achieve live births showed similar results, affecting 3.4 per cent of veterans and 2.3 per cent of non-Gulf veterans. Among the planned pregnancies, Gulf veterans took longer to conceive - 9.1 per cent took more than a year compared with 7.8 per cent of the other soldiers.
The decline in fertility, although small, has not decreased over the time since the war ended. The researchers also observed that the results were similar regardless of whether the men had already fathered children before the war, suggesting that sperm may have been damaged in some way in those men serving in the gulf. A few of the men who took part in the study had sought medical assistance and had their sperm analysed; some showed sperm abnormalities.
The authors stress that the results should be treated with caution, and do not conclusively prove anything. But, they say, when added to previous finding of increased miscarriage among pregnancies fathered by British Gulf War veterans, the results justify further research into the reproductive health of these soldiers, as well as a prospective investigation of veterans of the latest conflict in Iraq. A questionnaire was sent out earlier this year to troops serving in Iraq. Noreen Maconochie, one of the research team, said that the team hoped to be able to monitor the future reproductive health of serving soldiers, including semen condition and hormone levels.