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Fresh revelations cast doubt over reliability of Iraq birth defect study

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Trust in the findings of a study into rates of congenital birth defects in Iraq, undertaken by the WHO and Iraqi Ministry of Health, has continued to decline after interventions from three former UN officials. The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) continues to argue that full transparency is the only way for the WHO and Iraqi Ministry of Health to rebuild the study's credibility.

The interim results of the study which, following a BBC documentary earlier this year had been expected to make a link between increased incidence of congenital birth defects and areas subject to heavy fighting, found completely the opposite. The study claimed that, although rates across Iraq had increased since the early 90s, they are now largely similar to those seen in the EU. The exceptions were Basrah and Fallujah, where, it was claimed, rates are around half that expected in high income settings. The results contrasted starkly with those from previous studies.

Critics, including Dr Keith Baverstock, have questioned the study methodology's reliance on household questionnaires instead of analysis of hospital records, which are typically seen as more accurate. Baverstock, who worked for the WHO on radiation and health for 13 years, told The Guardian that the report "is not of scientific quality. It wouldn't pass peer review in one of the worst journals."

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."

Meanwhile Neel Mani, who served as the WHO's Iraq director between 2001 and 2003 has shed light on previous examples of political interference in Iraq's public health research. In an article for The Huffington Post, Mani argues that while he does not feel that WHO staff have ever sought to block or downplay research, "it is clear that the imbalances that exist in its funding, particularly for those public health projects that go beyond its regular country budgets, are open to state influence. In a system in which the financing is so disparate among member states, it is obvious that those who influence the purse influence the spend."

Mani had direct experience of political interference in health research in the country during his tenure when UN Security Council members repeatedly blocked his attempts to fund research into rates of cancers and birth defects in Iraq. He writes: "any project that proposed to investigate abnormal rates of birth defects in southern Iraq and their relation, if any, to environmental contamination, never got through the Security Council's approval process." In his article, Mani accuses Security Council members of appalling cynicism and the Coalition Provisional Authority of arrogance.

Speaking to The Guardian about the study findings, a third UN official, the former UN assistant secretary general and UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq Hans von Sponeck, said: "The brevity of this report is unacceptable... 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. ... 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."

ICBUW supports Fallujah paediatrician Dr Samira Al'aani's call for the full dataset to be released and for the open and independent peer-review of the study's findings and methodology.

Abridged from a 15 October 2013 International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons web-post,
With additional material from: Nafeez Ahmed, 14 Oct 2013, 'How the World Health Organisation covered up Iraq's nuclear nightmare',
See also: Neel Mani, 15 Oct 2013, 'Iraq: Politics and Science in Post-Conflict Health Research'