Wednesday, October 16, 2013

More on that WHO report

LAST month the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a long-awaited report summarising the findings of an investigation into congenital birth defects in Iraq which many people had expected would point to a link between their prevalence and the use of depleted uranium (DU) munitions by US and allied forces.

To the surprise of those who had awaited it, this 'summary report' finds:
"The rates for spontaneous abortion, stillbirths and congenital birth defects found in the study are consistent with or even lower than international estimates. The study provides no clear evidence to suggest an unusually high rate of congenital birth defects in Iraq."
Although critics have suggested there were odd features to this report, Jaffar Hussain, WHO's Head of Mission in Iraq, said it was based on survey techniques that are "renowned worldwide" and that the study was peer reviewed "extensively" by international experts.
Writing in the Guardiant this week ,Dr.Nafeez Ahmed reminds us of the Iraqi Health Ministry officials who told the BBC there would be "damning evidence" of the links between depleted uranium use and birth defects.

"For years, medical doctors in Iraq have reported "a high level of birth defects." Other peer-reviewed studies have documented a dramatic increase in infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia in the aftermath of US military bombardment. In Fallujah, doctors are witnessing a "massive unprecedented number" of heart defects, and an increase in the number of nervous system defects. Analysis of pre-2003 data compared to now showed that "the rate of congenital heart defects was 95 per 1,000 births - 13 times the rate found in Europe."

Nafeez Ahmed quotes  Dr. Keith Bavistock of the Department of Environmental Science, University of Eastern Finland,  a retired WHO expert on radiation and health who says the WHO 'summary document' is  "disappointing."
"This document is not of scientific quality. It wouldn't pass peer review in one of the worst journals. One of the biggest methodological problems, among many, is that the document does not even attempt to look at existing medical records in Iraqi hospitals - these are proper clinical records which document the diagnoses of the relevant cases being actually discovered by Iraqi doctors. These medics collecting clinical records are reporting higher birth defects than the study acknowledges. Instead, the document focuses on interviews with mothers as a basis for diagnosis, many of whom are traumatised in this environment, their memories unreliable, and are not qualified to make diagnosis."
Asked whether there was reason to believe the WHO report had been politically compromised, Dr. Baverstock  said:
"The way this document has been produced is extremely suspicious. There are question marks about the role of the US and UK, who have a conflict of interest in this sort of study due to compensation issues that might arise from findings determining a link between higher birth defects and DU. I can say that the US and UK have been very reluctant to disclose the locations of DU deployment, which might throw further light on this correlation."
Dr.Ahmed says this has happened before:
"In 2001, Baverstock was on the editorial board for a WHO research project clearing the US and UK of responsibility for environmental health hazards involved in DU deployment. His detailed editorial recommendations accounting for new research proving uranium's nature as as a genotoxin (capable of changing DNA) were ignored and overruled:
"My editorial changes were suppressed, even though some of the research was from Department of Defense studies looking at subjects who had ingested DU from friendly fire, clearly proving that DU was genutoxic."
Baverstock then co-authored his own scientific paper on the subject arguing for plausibility of the link between DU and high rates of birth defects in Iraq, but said that WHO blocked publication of the study"because they didn't like its conclusions."
"The extent to which scientific principles are being bent to fit politically convenient conclusions is alarming", said Baverstock.
The British medical journal, The Lancet, reports that despite the study's claims, a "scientific standard of peer review... may not have been fully achieved."
One scientist named as a peer-reviewer for the project, Simon Cousens, professor of epidemiology and statistics at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), told The Lancet that he "attended a relatively brief meeting of around one and a half hours, so just gave some comments on an early presentation of the results. I wouldn't classify that as thorough peer review."
Nafeez Ahmad also contrasts the WHO findings with those of a Japanese-based human rights network which investigated recorded birth defects at a major hospital in Fallujah for the year 2012, confirmed first hand birth defect incidences over a one-month period in 2013, and interviewed doctors and parents of children born with birth defects. The report concluded there was:
"... an extraordinary situation of congenital birth defects in both nature and quantity. The investigation demonstrated a significant rise of these health consequences in the period following the war... An overview of scientific literature relating to the effects of uranium and heavy metals associated with munitions used in the 2003 Iraq War and occupation, together with potential exposure pathways, strongly suggest that environmental contamination resulting from combat during the Iraq War may be playing a significant role in the observed rate of birth defects."
The report criticised both the UN and the WHO for approaches that are "insufficient to meet the needs of the issues within their mandate."
Hans von Sponeck, former UN assistant secretary general and UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq,says it would justify public skepticism:
"The brevity of this report is unacceptable", he told me:
"Everybody was expecting a proper, professional scientific paper, with properly scrutinised and checkable empirical data. Although I would be guarded about jumping to conclusions, WHO cannot be surprised if people ask questions about whether the body is giving into bilateral political pressures."
Von Sponeck said that US political pressure on WHO had scuppered previous investigations into the impact of DU on Iraq:
"I served in Baghdad and was confronted with the reality of the environmental impact of DU. In 2001, I saw in Geneva how a WHO mission to conduct on-spot assessments in Basra and southern Iraq, where depleted uranium had led to devastating environmental health problems, was aborted under US political pressure."
Asked whether such political pressure on the UN body could explain the unscientific nature of the latest report, Von Sponeck said "It would not be surprising if such US pressure has continued".
"There is definitive evidence of an alarming rise in birth defects, leukaemia, cancer and other carcinogenic diseases in Iraq after the war. Looking at the stark difference between previous descriptions of the WHO study's findings and this new report, it seems that someone, somewhere clumsily decided that they would not release these damning findings, but instead obscure them."

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