Birth defects soar in Fallujah, key battleground in Iraq War

April 02, 2013

By YUSUKE MURAYAMA/ Correspondent

FALLUJAH, Iraq--Zahraa Majid has six fingers and six toes on each hand and foot. The 7-year-old cannot walk or speak. Her eyesight is also poor.

She was born to Mohamed Majid, 36, and his wife Rana, 33, after the November 2004 assault on this city by U.S. forces. The couple's home was attacked during the fighting, leaving the left side of Rana's body paralyzed.

The couple's 3-year-old son was killed during the campaign to rid the city of insurgents.

"We barely scrape by," Majid, a taxi driver, said at the Fallujah General Hospital. "It is difficult to care for a child with such severe disabilities."

Teacher Ghazi Junaid, 40, is distraught that his daughter, also 7, is paralyzed in the lower part of her body. Like any parent of a child born with an abnormality, he asked what she had done to deserve such a cruel start in life.

An alarming number of children have been born with abnormalities in Fallujah, which was besieged by U.S. forces in 2004 a year after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Experts say it is possible the deformities were caused by U.S. munitions, something the Pentagon denies.

Samira Alaani, a pediatrician who was formerly with the Fallujah General Hospital, has kept a record of children with congenital anomalies, including a child with two heads, one with a single eye and one without a brain.

One child is added to her file every day.

"I am sure that we will discover at least more than two to three cases a day" if DNA and ultrasonic examination equipment was available, Alaani said.

Alaani, 48, headed a survey at the Fallujah General Hospital, the largest medical institution in the area, and confirmed congenital anomalies in 1,158 children since October 2009.

She carried out a separate survey with other experts, including Malak Hamdan, scientific director of the London-based Cancer and Birth Defects Foundation.

The survey found congenital anomalies in 291, or 14.4 percent, of the 2,016 newborns examined during the 11 months since November 2009.

Heart and circulatory system defects accounted for 113 cases, while nervous system and digestive system defects were found in 72 and 40 infants, respectively. There were also 30 infants with Down syndrome.

In Japan, the rate of congenital anomalies was 2.31 percent, according to a nationwide survey conducted in fiscal 2010 by Yokohama City University's birth defects monitoring center.

Fumiki Hirahara, director of the center, called the 14.4 percent rate in Fallujah "extremely high."

But he said it was crucial to determine whether the births at the Fallujah General Hospital accurately represent the trend in a broader area.

Hirahara also said factors such as the living environment and marriages between close relatives must be considered.

In March, a 46-year-old woman was holding the hand of Maytham Milad, a 6-month-old grandson, at the Fallujah Maternity and Children's Hospital, where Alaani moved from March.

Three days after his birth, the boy was found to have a congenital heart defect. He weighs only 3.3 kilograms.

Dr. Anmir Hamd, 24, said the child is so frail that performing an operation is difficult.

"My heart is going to burst," the grandmother said. "All I can do is pray for Allah to save him."

Another patient was 13-month-old Ishak Ibrahim.

He was born with part of his intestine protruding from his right upper abdomen. It was cut off, but a 3-centimeter square strip of flesh was left, which still sticks out from his body.

His mother, Nisreen Khalel, said the boy is not even teething yet.

Iraq's Health Ministry has been doing a survey on congenital anomalies and cancer since June, with approval from the World Health Organization.

The survey looks at family backgrounds and symptoms. The results will be released as early as May.

Hassan Al-Kazzaz, director-general of the ministry's public health directorate, said the government started the survey because birth defects have developed into a social problem.

Al-Kazzaz said it is exactly the right time to do the investigation as 10 years have passed since the United States invaded Iraq.

An earlier attempt to get at the heart of the problem ran into a wall.

Munged Al-Naeb, a nuclear chemist at the Ministry of Science and Technology, proposed an investigation in Fallujah last year. But ministry officials opposed it, saying it would add to public anxiety.

When Al-Naeb started a survey on soil contamination on his own initiative, his superiors told him not to disclose the results.

Al-Naeb said it will depend on "the political situation" whether the results of a blood test on residents can be announced.

In 2010, a group of six experts from Iraq, Iran and the United States, including an environmental toxicologist at the University of Michigan, took hair samples from 56 families in Fallujah.

The survey found that hair of children with a birth defect contained five times more lead and six times more mercury, compared with healthy children.

The experts said that "the bombardment … may have exacerbated public exposure to metals, possibly culminating in the current epidemic of birth defects."

Alaani, Hamdan and others also analyzed hair of 25 couples with a child with a birth defect and detected traces of low-enriched uranium.

The experts said "a uranium-based weapon or weapons of some unknown type" may be behind the abnormalities. Other researchers said depleted uranium shells are responsible.

Some members of the parliamentary Health and Environment Committee have urged the government to seek compensation from the United States.

Liqaa Al Yassin, chairwoman of the committee, said the United States still has influence in Iraq to prevent research even though U.S. forces have been withdrawn from Iraq.

Cynthia Smith, a U.S. Defense Department spokeswoman, told The Asahi Shimbun there is "insufficient evidence" to conclude that the prevalence of birth defects, leukemia and cancer is particularly elevated in Fallujah.

She said researchers have not adequately addressed several factors, such as potential exposure from local industry and nutritional deficiencies in women of child-bearing age.

"Until these are adequately addressed, it will be difficult to determine if the Fallujah residents are experiencing these diseases at unusually high rates," Smith said, adding, "there have been no valid scientific studies that have demonstrated any connection with specific exposures to U.S. munitions."

A U.S. defense official also said, "We don't have exact records regarding which conventional weapons were used and to what extent" due to the nature of combat in Fallujah.

Residents of Fallujah are increasingly worried because the true picture of abnormalities and their causes remain unknown.

A page one story in the Feb. 28 edition of a local newspaper said young men are looking for wives outside Fallujah.

A 30-year-old hospital worker said he is worried about marrying a local woman.

By YUSUKE MURAYAMA/ Correspondent
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Mohamed Majid with his daughter Zahraa, 7, who has six digits on each hand and foot, at a hospital in Fallujah, Iraq, on March 6 (Yusuke Murayama)

Mohamed Majid with his daughter Zahraa, 7, who has six digits on each hand and foot, at a hospital in Fallujah, Iraq, on March 6 (Yusuke Murayama)

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  • Mohamed Majid with his daughter Zahraa, 7, who has six digits on each hand and foot, at a hospital in Fallujah, Iraq, on March 6 (Yusuke Murayama)
  • Six-month-old Maytham Milad, born with a heart defect, is attended by his grandmother at a hospital in Fallujah, Iraq, on March 10. (Yusuke Murayama)

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