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Guardian British soldiers serving in Iraq do not appear to be suffering ill-health on the scale reported by veterans of the Gulf war, scientists report today.
Two studies, published online by the Lancet, suggest there may not be an Iraq war syndrome. But the research raises concerns for reservists and suggests they may need more help and support.
The research was carried out by Simon Wessely and colleagues from the King's centre for military health research at King's College London, who also did the definitive studies on the illnesses now commonly described as Gulf war syndrome. They say they are surprised by the results, which are not in line with work carried out in the United States.
One of their studies compares the mental and physical health of nearly 4,000 soldiers who went to Iraq with that of a similar number who did not. The second contrasts the results from Iraq with those from the Gulf war in 1991.
Researchers found twice as many symptoms of ill-health in Gulf war veterans compared with servicemen who had not been deployed. But the new study of 3,642 male regular armed forces personnel serving in Iraq in 2003 found that their mental and physical health was not significantly different from that of 4,295 servicemen who were not deployed.
That means, said Prof Wessely, "that at this moment in time there has not been a repeat of the Gulf war syndrome", though more illnesses may be reported in time.
The study sheds new light on Gulf war syndrome. Depleted uranium was suspected of being a cause of illness in the Gulf. But it was also used in Iraq, which Prof Wessely says rules it out.
Anthrax and plague vaccines were given, but without pertussis (whooping cough). Vaccinations were spaced out and more information was offered. It is possible, the study says, that "there was some relation between the specific pattern of medical countermeasures used in 1991 and ill-health".
The researchers looked for symptoms of depression and anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fatigue, alcohol use and physical symptoms among the servicemen.
Most of the outcomes were the same for those in Iraq and those who stayed behind. About 20% in both groups had depression and anxiety, which can be interpreted as stress at being deployed and expecting to be deployed. In a major difference from the American studies, about 4% of both groups of UK military personnel suffered from PTSD - the figure among US service personnel was 20%.
The researchers said that British personnel tended to be older and more experienced. Americans were also more often deployed in areas with the most fighting.
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