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Iraqi doctor petitions WHO for open-access review of birth defect data

Fallujah paediatrician Dr Samira Alaani has launched a Change.org petition calling for official data on rates of congenital birth defects in Iraq to be submitted for peer review in the open-access journal PLoS One after repeated publication delays by the World Health Organisation and Iraqi government.
30 July 2013 - ICBUW

Paediatrician Dr Samira Alani examining another case at Fallujah General Hospital, research undertaken by Samira Alani has shown an incidence rate of 144 congenital birth defects per 1000 babies born at the hospital. Credit: Donna Mulhearn.

Paediatrician Dr Samira Alaani examining another case at Fallujah General Hospital, research undertaken by Samira Alani has shown an incidence rate of 144 congenital birth defects per 1000 babies born at the hospital. Credit: Donna Mulhearn. 

Results from the nationwide study, undertaken by the Iraqi Ministry of Health (MoH) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2012, are now long overdue. Iraqi researchers interviewed by the BBC earlier this year claimed it will link increased incidence rates of birth defects with areas subject to heavy fighting in the 2003 war – a hugely significant and politically sensitive conclusion.

Dr Alaani is calling for the data to be submitted to the leading open-access journal PloS One after persistent delays from the WHO and MoH in the analysis of the data. Publication in PLoS One would allow independent scrutiny of the data and reduce fears that the WHO’s internal process had been subject to politicisation because of the controversial nature of the study. The research was prompted by concerns from maternity hospitals across Iraq that rates of congenital birth defects were unusually high. This is the first time that rates have been recorded and analysed nationwide.

Sign the #Act4Iraq petition

ICBUW supports Dr Alani's call for transparency, sign the petition at http://www.change.org/act4iraq and call on the WHO to realease the data.

 “We began logging these cases in October 2009 and we have determined that 144 babies are born with a deformity for every 1000 live births. We believe it has to be related to contamination caused by the fighting in our city, even now, nearly 10 years later,” said Dr Samira Alaani, a paediatrician at Fallujah General Hospital. “It is not unique to Fallujah; hospitals throughout the Anbar Governorate and many other regions of Iraq are recording spiralling increases. Every day I see the strain this fear puts on expectant mothers and their families.”

The publication delays began to lengthen in March after BBC World broadcast a series of interviews with Iraqi MoH staff. Academics around the globe subsequently submitted a petition calling for full disclosure. Since then, the WHO and MoH have introduced a series of procedural hurdles that have slowed down release of the results. In addition to increasing public confidence in the analysis of the data, submission to PLoS One would also ensure a far swifter process of peer-review.

It is incredibly important for the Iraqi people that these data are published, and published in a swift and transparent manner,” said Doug Weir, Coordinator of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons. “They are a crucial first step in helping to investigate, and ultimately reduce, the public health legacy from environmental contamination caused by the Iraq War 10 years ago. No more delays, there is intense international interest in Iraq’s health crisis and open-access publication is the only way to ensure public confidence in the peer review process.”  

If the results do link military-origin pollution with birth defects it will prove uncomfortable reading for the US and its Coalition partners. Researchers have long argued that the dispersal of heavy metals and other toxic materials during conflict presents a long-term health threat to civilian health, particularly where environmental assessment and management is disrupted by post-conflict insecurity.