Eight World Health Organization experts are going to Baghdad to investigate Iraqi claims that cancers and congenital deformities have increased since the Gulf War 10 years ago. WHO experts and Iraqi health officials hope to finalize the details of a proposed study during the next five days.
Since the Gulf War, Iraqi officials have been periodically furnishing anecdotal evidence that they say shows a rise in cancers, congenital malformations, and kidney diseases in the country.
The officials blame the increase in these diseases on the environmental damage done to the country by allied forces during the war. They focus particular attention on the allied weapons that used depleted uranium. The World Health Organization wants to see if there is any substance to these claims.
WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl says anecdotal evidence alone is not good enough. He says it is necessary to conduct an extensive scientific study to get to the truth. "First of all, what we need to do is determine whether or not there has actually been an increase in cancers, congenital malformations, and renal disease in this instance, for example," he said. "If that is the case, then we would start looking into possible causes of the increase in these diseases. Depleted uranium is perhaps just one possible cause of the number of possible causes - which could be environmental or nutrition linked, or have some other cause."
Mr. Hartl says WHO first has to set up a system that can accurately compare the present number of cancers and other diseases throughout Iraq with those that existed 10 years ago. He says if the data show a significant rise, then the scientists will look at the probable causes. But, before the study can begin, Mr. Hartl says WHO and the Iraqi government have to agree on certain guidelines for carrying out the work. "We need to ensure from the Iraqi government that the conditions are correct for allowing us to carry out the research in a scientifically sound manner," he said.
Mr. Hartl says the WHO experts must be able to get access to all the information they need. They also must be to go wherever they want and to talk with anyone who might be able to provide them with this information. Otherwise, he says, the study will have little value.