Huge Rise in Birth Defects in Falluja

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Huge Rise in Birth Defects in Falluja

by
Martin Chulov in Falluja

Doctors in Iraq's
war-ravaged enclave of Falluja are dealing with up to 15 times as many
chronic deformities in infants and a spike in early life cancers that
may be linked to toxic materials left over from the fighting.

The
extraordinary rise in birth defects has crystallised over recent months
as specialists working in Falluja's over-stretched health system have
started compiling detailed clinical records of all babies born.

Neurologists
and obstetricians in the city interviewed by the Guardian say the rise
in birth defects - which include a baby born with two heads, babies
with multiple tumours, and others with nervous system problems - are
unprecedented and at present unexplainable.

A group of Iraqi and
British officials, including the former Iraqi minister for women's
affairs, Dr Nawal Majeed a-Sammarai, and the British doctors David
Halpin and Chris Burns-Cox, have petitioned the UN general assembly to
ask that an independent committee fully investigate the defects and
help clean up toxic materials left over decades of war - including the
six years since Saddam Hussein was ousted.

"We are seeing a very
significant increase in central nervous system anomalies," said Falluja
general hospital's director and senior specialist, Dr Ayman Qais.
"Before 2003 [the start of the war] I was seeing sporadic numbers of
deformities in babies. Now the frequency of deformities has increased
dramatically."

The rise in frequency is stark - from two
admissions a fortnight a year ago to two a day now. "Most are in the
head and spinal cord, but there are also many deficiencies in lower
limbs," he said. "There is also a very marked increase in the number of
cases of less than two years [old] with brain tumours. This is now a
focus area of multiple tumours."

After several years of
speculation and anecdotal evidence, a picture of a highly disturbing
phenomenon in one of Iraq's most battered areas has now taken shape.
Previously all miscarried babies, including those with birth defects or
infants who were not given ongoing care, were not listed as abnormal
cases.

The Guardian asked a paediatrician, Samira Abdul Ghani, to
keep precise records over a three-week period. Her records reveal that
37 babies with anomalies, many of them neural tube defects, were born
during that period at Falluja general hospital alone.

Dr Bassam
Allah, the head of the hospital's children's ward, this week urged
international experts to take soil samples across Falluja and for
scientists to mount an investigation into the causes of so many
ailments, most of which he said had been "acquired" by mothers before
or during pregnancy.

Other health officials are also starting to
focus on possible reasons, chief among them potential chemical or
radiation poisonings. Abnormal clusters of infant tumours have also
been repeatedly cited in Basra and Najaf - areas that have in the past
also been intense battle zones where modern munitions have been heavily
used.

Falluja's frontline doctors are reluctant to draw a direct
link with the fighting. They instead cite multiple factors that could
be contributors.

"These include air pollution, radiation,
chemicals, drug use during pregnancy, malnutrition, or the
psychological status of the mother," said Dr Qais. "We simply don't
have the answers yet."

The anomalies are evident all through
Falluja's newly opened general hospital and in centres for disabled
people across the city. On 2 November alone, there were four cases of
neuro-tube defects in the neo-natal ward and several more were in the
intensive care ward and an outpatient clinic.

Falluja was the
scene of the only two setpiece battles that followed the US-led
invasion. Twice in 2004, US marines and infantry units were engaged in
heavy fighting with Sunni militia groups who had aligned with former
Ba'athists and Iraqi army elements.

The first battle was fought
to find those responsible for the deaths of four Blackwater private
security contractors working for the US. The city was bombarded heavily
by American artillery and fighter jets. Controversial weaponry was
used, including white phosphorus, which the US government admitted
deploying.

Statistics on infant tumours are not considered as
reliable as new data about nervous system anomalies, which are usually
evident immediately after birth. Dr Abdul Wahid Salah, a neurosurgeon,
said: "With neuro-tube defects, their heads are often larger than
normal, they can have deficiencies in hearts and eyes and their lower
limbs are often listless. There has been no orderly registration here
in the period after the war and we have suffered from that. But [in
relation to the rise in tumours] I can say with certainty that we have
noticed a sharp rise in malignancy of the blood and this is not a
congenital anomaly - it is an acquired disease."

Despite fully
funding the construction of the new hospital, a well-equipped facility
that opened in August, Iraq's health ministry remains largely
disfunctional and unable to co-ordinate a response to the city's
pressing needs.

The government's lack of capacity has led Falluja
officials, who have historically been wary of foreign intervention, to
ask for help from the international community. "Even in the scientific
field, there has been a reluctance to reach out to the exterior
countries," said Dr Salah. "But we have passed that point now. I am
doing multiple surgeries every day. I have one assistant and I am
obliged to do everything myself."

Additional reporting: Enas Ibrahim.

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