Despite several years of peace and the opening of a new hospital, another kind of misery is hitting people in parts of Iraq. Doctors in Fallujah, a major battle zone during the conflict, note a staggering increase in birth defects in the last few years. The Guardian reports that 25% of all babies born at one hospital have birth defects and abnormalities; the March of Dimes estimates that 6% of babies are born with defects globally. One Iraqi doctor interviewed confirmed seeing significant increases in neurotube defects, hydrocephalus, tumors, and mutations. Specialists are finally being able to compile statistics that show a birth defect occurrence as much as 15 times the pre-war rate. According to the Guardian: “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.” The new hospital is being overrun by newborns battling dreadful challenges. They face lives of intensive and expensive care for the rest of their lives, if they survive.
Statistics are difficult to come by in an erstwhile war zone, but reporters have uncovered startling stories: In 2008 Sky News quoted a Fallujah undertaker who buries four to five newborns every day, most of them with deformities. Iraqi doctors are calling on the U.N. for funding and an international investigation.
Theories as to the cause of the Fallujah statistics include weapons-related radiation or white phosphorus use, air pollution, psychological stress on the mother, malnutrition, and more. Birth defects have multiple and uncertain causes, and the environment certainly plays an important role. For example, a 2009 U.S. study linked birth defects to month of conception, which at first glance may seem like astrology; the study associates higher pesticide presence in surface water during the spring and summer months with the spike in birth defects for babies conceived during that time.
As humans we love cause and effect and simple answers: “Find the cause, fix it and move on.” Unfortunately, the complex relationships of human health, environmental health, poverty and violence make easy answers impossible. The only sure thing is that there is a long road ahead for the suffering babies of Fallujah, for their families, and for the human family.
The Guardian video can be viewed below. Warning: it is a disturbing topic with disturbing images.
Photo by Yankee November via Flickr. CC license An American soldier cares for an Iraqi baby