Huge Rise In Birth Defects In Falluja

Iraqi former battle zone sees abnormal clusters of infant tumours and deformities

Published on The Guardian, by Martin Chulov (Additional reporting: Enas Ibrahim), 13 November, 2009.

Falluja: … (watch first the video on the Guardian’s website) … 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 dramaticall” …

… 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.” (full text).

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