Fears of Gulf War II Syndrome

Four soldiers vaccinated before the war in Iraq have triggered fears of a “Gulf War II syndrome” after exhibiting symptoms similar to those suffered by hundreds of troops who fought in the 1991 conflict.

Veterans’ organisations are demanding that Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, explain why he told the Commons in January that soldiers would not be given multiple vaccinations over a short timeframe because of “lessons learnt” from the previous Gulf conflict, They claim he then allowed the armed forces to follow the 1991 procedures for vaccinations.

The new syndrome became apparent when two men vaccinated before the Iraq conflict became so ill that they were unable to fly to the Gulf. One, Stephen Cartwright, was admitted to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge because he developed a serious rash after he was inoculated. He had had five vaccinations, including two against anthrax, in a single day. The other, Tony Barker, also became too ill to travel to join his unit after the vaccinations.

Two other soldiers, based in Germany, who served in Iraq have fallen ill, according to the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association, which has 4,500 members who say they are suffering from Gulf War syndrome. Charles Plumridge, a senior co-ordinator for the association, said: “Wives of present servicemen are concerned about whether their husbands will get ill too. It’s only a small number so far but we fear it will get bigger.”

The group blames the original syndrome on the powerful cocktail of vaccinations against diseases and germ agents that was given to troops over a short period in 1991. The symptoms include skin disorders, hair loss, headaches, muscular pain, nervous system disorders and sleep disturbances.

The group says promises made by Mr Hoon were broken. On 7 January 2003 he was asked by Paul Keetch MP whether the Government was confident that “vaccines issued to servicemen today will not make them ill in the future”. Mr Hoon replied that “a key lesson learnt from the Gulf conflict was the importance of ensuring that members of the armed forces should not undergo in a short time a series of different vaccinations. That was identified as a particular cause of difficulty, and the lesson has been learnt and acted upon, so that there is now a process whereby individual members do not receive a number of vaccinations in a short timeframe”.

But Mr Plumridge said recent reports suggested that the advice was not followed. “We blame the Ministry of Defence for giving vaccinations in multiple doses rather than singly,” he said. “It would be a serious offence for Mr Hoon to mislead the Commons.”

On 23 May, the Medical Research Council published a review of existing research, which recommended “a full review of the differing vaccinations schedules used in participating countries” for the Gulf War in 1991.