Objectives Firstly, to describe changes in the health of Gulf war veterans studied in a previous occupational cohort study and to compare outcome with comparable non-deployed military personnel. Secondly, to determine whether differences in prevalence between Gulf veterans and controls at follow up can be explained by greater persistence or greater incidence of disorders.
Design Occupational cohort study in the form of a postal survey.
Participants Military personnel who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf war; personnel who served on peacekeeping duties to Bosnia; military personnel who were deployed elsewhere (“Era” controls). All participants had responded to a previous survey.
Setting United Kingdom.
Main outcome measures Self reported fatigue measured on the Chalder fatigue scale; psychological distress measured on the general health questionnaire, physical functioning and health perception on the SF-36; and a count of physical symptoms.
Results Gulf war veterans experienced a modest reduction in prevalence of fatigue (48.8% at stage 1, 43.4% at stage 2) and psychological distress (40.0% stage 1, 37.1% stage 2) but a slight worsening of physical functioning on the SF-36 (90.3 stage 1, 88.7 stage 2). Compared with the other cohorts Gulf veterans continued to experience poorer health on all outcomes, although physical functioning also declined in Bosnia veterans. Era controls showed both lower incidence of fatigue than Gulf veterans, and both comparison groups showed less persistence of fatigue compared with Gulf veterans.
Conclusions Gulf war veterans remain a group with many symptoms of ill health. The excess of illness at follow up is explained by both higher incidence and greater persistence of symptoms.