Iraq is poisoned. Thirty-five million Iraqis wake up every morning to a living nightmare of childhood cancers, adult cancers and birth defects. Familial cancers, cluster cancers and multiple cancers in the same individual have become frequent in Iraq.
Sterility, repeated miscarriages, stillbirths and severe birth defects – some never described in any medical books – are all around, in increasing numbers. Trapped in this hellish nightmare, millions of Iraqis struggle to survive, and they call for help.
At long last, public pressure and media attention to this public health catastrophe prompted a joint study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Iraqi Ministry of Health to determine the prevalence of birth defects in Iraq. This study began in May-June 2012 and was completed in early October 2012.
The WHO website says that this large-scale study was conducted in Baghdad (Karkh and Rasafa), Diyala, Anbar, Sulaymaniyah, Babel, Basrah, Mosul and Thi-Qar, with 10,800 households from 18 districts and a sample size of 600 households per district.
The Independent (UK) reported that this study was due to be released in November 2012. But the report has not yet come out.
Report kept secret
In March 2013, a high-ranking official at the Iraqi Ministry of Health in Baghdad discussed the issue with the BBC and said that "all studies done by the Ministry of Health prove with damning evidence that there has been a rise in birth defects and cancers" in Iraq.
During the same BBC documentary, called "Born under a bad sign", two other Ministry of Health researchers discussed the unpublished study. They confirmed that that cancers and birth defects constitute a major crisis for the next generation of Iraqi children. They specifically confirmed simultaneous increases in cancers and congenital anomalies in three governorates – Nineveh, Anbar and Najaf – linking those increases to munitions used during the war.
Why should such an important report be kept secret?
In a serious health emergency, as we see in Iraq, such an extensive survey of public health must be widely publicised to attract international support and expertise. Medical experts, epidemiologists, environmental toxicologists, remediation staff and environmental cleanup specialists must be summoned to address this crisis and save lives.
A delay of six months in the release of such a critical report has left many of us anxious and fearful that it may be suppressed.
In response to this costly delay in releasing the WHO report, 58 scientists, health professionals and human rights advocates recently wrote to the WHO and the Iraqi Health Ministry, asking for the immediate release of their report. We requested that this globally significant report be released at once. We received no response to this letter.
The letter was signed by Iraqi, Iranian, Lebanese, Japanese, European, Australian and North American academics and public figures. They included Noam Chomsky, Ken Loach, John Tirman, Human Rights Now (Japan), Health Alliance International and a board member of BlackCommentator.com.
We are still waiting for an answer from the WHO. Why is this important report being held up?
One possible answer was suggested on May 26 by the Guardian. It reported the recent comments of Hans von Sponeck, the former assistant secretary general of the United Nations: "The US government sought to prevent WHO from surveying ares in southern Iraq where depleted uranium had been used and caused serious health and environmental dangers."
It would be deeply distressing if this WHO report is delayed for any such reason. After so many years of sanctions and war, the public health of 35 million Iraqis must not be held hostage. Instead, we must strive to save lives today and prevent any further contamination of the earth with war pollutants.
Deadly UN sanctions on Iraq
Recall the deadly UN sanctions on Iraq. By 1995, those sanctions had devastated the Iraqi public health infrastructure and may have killed as many as 576,000 children, according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization scientists.
In that vulnerable state, Iraq was invaded. MSNBC reported: "Between 2002 and 2005, US forces shot off 6 billion bullets in Iraq (something like 300,000 for every person killed). They also dropped 2,000 to 4,000 tonnes of bombs on Iraqi cities, leaving behind a witch’s brew of contaminants and toxic metals, including the neurotoxins lead and mercury."
Since 2003, mother-and-child health has further deteriorated in Iraq, and the country's health indicators are now among the poorest in the world. The current state of mother-and-child health in Iraq will be further damaged if the WHO report on congenital birth defects continues to be inaccessible to the public.
The WHO report will clarify the magnitude and trend of congenital birth defects in several Iraqi governorates, identify possible risk factors for these birth defects, and assess the public burden of these conditions on the Iraqi nation. The information contained in this report is essential to inform and prioritise public health policy in Iraq and in the region at large.
Immediate release of this report will be the first step towards mobilising global efforts to protect public health from further degradation in Iraq and in the entire region. Once released, the report will enable researchers to collaborate, ask the most relevant questions and spearhead research to remedy this health emergency.
Dr Mozhgan Savabieasfahani is an environmental toxicologist based in Michigan. She is the author of over two dozen peer-reviewed articles and a book, Pollution and Reproductive Damage (DVM 2009).