Gulf War Syndrome

What is Gulf War Syndrome?

'Gulf War Syndrome' is the phrase coined by the media to describe the unattributable illnesses showing in veterans of the Persian Gulf War against Iraq in 1990.

The Ministry Of Defence (MOD) has said the syndrome has no definite scientific or medical basis, and the term is used broadly to describe a diverse range of symptoms reported by returning soldiers, which include fatigue, headaches, rashes, memory loss and gastrointestinal problems.

The possibility of a 'syndrome' was suggested because of the exposure of US and UK soldiers to an array of dangerous factors during the conflict, and because of concerns about the effect of vaccines administered by the MOD before, during, and after the conflict.


'War syndrome' has long been associated with soldiers returning from conflict and presenting with scientifically unexplainable symptoms of illness. Its most well-known manifestation is in the mental and physical problems displayed by large numbers of US Vietnam veterans.

'Gulf War Syndrome' was first mooted as a potential illness in 1991, at the end of the initial stages of the conflict, and the return of the first service personnel.

The Gulf Veterans' Medical Assessment Programme (GVMAP) was established by the Ministry of Defence in July 1993 to examine UK Gulf veterans who were concerned that their health had been adversely affected by service in the Gulf conflict. The programme aimed to investigate and record the symptoms presented by servicemen and recommend treatments, but not actually treat servicemen.

In 1997 the Government published a report, entitled; 'Gulf Veterans' Illnesses: A New Beginning', outlining the way the government was to pursue the issue. The MOD also established the Gulf Veterans' Illnesses Unit (GVIU) in 1997 to conduct relevant reviews, provide support to the research teams and to answer public correspondence on the subject.

These programmes have been supported by individual epidemiological research studies, (and others such as the Neuromuscular Symptoms Study) carried out by independently controlled bodies, into the possible causes of the disease.


The core controversy surrounding the incidence is that there is currently no consensus among the scientific and medical communities on the reasons for Gulf veterans' illnesses, and consequently those veterans who feel they have suffered as a direct result of the conflict are unable to seek legal redress for their suffering.

A wide range of theories about what caused Gulf War Syndrome have been put forward. These include:

Depleted uranium poisoning

Side-effects of drugs given for protection against nerve agents

Autoimmune diseases induced by squalene, an adjuvant used in anthrax vaccines to speed up the development of anthrax immunity.


Biological or chemical weapons whose use has not been disclosed or discovered

Fumes from oil well fires

Aspartame poisoning – the artificial sweetener breaks down at high temperatures into, among other things, methanol and formaldehyde

Despite some circumstantial evidence being available to support many of the above, conclusive evidence for what – if anything – Gulf War Syndrome is continues to evade the medical establishment. Some have even argued that it is simply a manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, in a landmark judgement in June 2003, the High Court upheld a claim by a former serviceman, Shaun Rusling, who argued that a range of health problems he had suffered from were attributable to his service in the Gulf War – although the Court did not mention Gulf War Syndrome by name. Mr Rusling was contesting the Veterans Agency's refusal to pay pensions to veterans claiming to be suffering from Gulf War Syndrome because the Ministry of Defence does not recognise the condition.

Then in November 2005, the MOD agreed, during the pension appeals tribunal case of Trooper Daniel Martin, that 'Gulf War Syndrome' could be used as an umbrella term, "to refer to a broad range of symptoms suffered by certain servicemen and women who were connected with the 1991 Gulf War".

The MOD has said that it hopes the use of the umbrella term will address the concerns of some Gulf veterans that the Government has not recognised a link between their ill-health and the 1990/1991 Gulf Conflict. "We hope that this will help to provide an element of closure for those who have sought some acknowledgment that their ill-health is connected to their Gulf service," the MOD stated.


The latest UK Gulf Veterans Mortality Data, produced by Defence Analytical Services and Advice (DASA), Ministry of Defence, was released on the 31st March 2011 according to the arrangements approved by the UK Statistics Authority.

This Statistical Notice provides summary statistics on the causes of deaths that occurred among the UK veterans of the 1990/91 Gulf Conflict.

The mortality rates of 53,409 UK Gulf veterans were analysed alongside those of a comparison group, the Era cohort. The Era comparison group consists of 53,143 UK Armed Forces personnel of similar age, gender, Service, regular/reservist status and rank who were in Service on 1 January 1991 but did not deploy to the Gulf. The findings include those who died while in Service and those who died after they had left the Services.

The key findings in the latest release (1 April 1991 – 31 December 2010) are:
There were no statistically significant differences in the total number of deaths between the Gulf veterans and the Era comparison group, or for any of the main groups of cause of death.
There were 1,193 deaths among Gulf veterans up to the 31 December 2010 and 1,252 deaths in the Era comparison group, representing increases of 98 and 107 respectively since the last release in March 2009, resulting in an estimate of 1,216 deaths in the age-adjusted Era comparison group.
The 1,193 deaths among Gulf veterans compare with approximately 1,998 deaths which would have been expected in a similar sized cohort taken from the general population of the UK with the same age and gender profile. This reflects the strong emphasis on fitness when recruiting and retaining Service personnel.

Source: MOD – 2011


"Gulf Veterans' illnesses issues remain a priority for the Government. Our intention is to ensure that Gulf veterans receive appropriate support and recognition via healthcare services through the NHS and the MOD’s Medical Assessment Programme. Financial assistance is provided through MOD War Pensions and Armed Forces occupation pension schemes."

MOD – 2012