Last month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a long awaited document summarising the findings of an in-depth investigation into the prevalence of congenital birth defects (CBD) in Iraq, which many experts believe is linked to the use of depleted uranium (DU) munitions by Allied forces. According to the 'summary report':
"The rates for spontaneous abortion, stillbirths and congenital birth defects found in the study are consistent with or even lower than international estimates. The study provides no clear evidence to suggest an unusually high rate of congenital birth defects in Iraq."
Jaffar Hussain, WHO's Head of Mission in Iraq, said that the report is based on survey techniques that are "renowned worldwide" and that the study was peer reviewed "extensively" by international experts.
But the conclusions contrasted dramatically from previous statements about the research findings from Iraqi Ministry of Health (MOH) officials involved in the study. Earlier this year, BBC News spoke to MOH researchers who confirmed the joint report would furnish "damning evidence" that rates of birth defects are higher in areas experiencing heavy fighting in the 2003 war. In an early press release, WHO similarly acknowledged "existing MOH statistics showing high number of CBD cases" in the "high risk" areas selected for study.
The publication of this 'summary document' on the World Health Organisation's website has raised questions from independent experts and former United Nations and WHO officials, who question the validity of its findings and its anonymous authorship. They highlight the existence of abundant research demonstrating not only significant rates of congenital birth defects in many areas of Iraq, but also a plausible link to the impact of depleted uranium.
For years, medical doctors in Iraq have reported "a high level of birth defects." Other peer-reviewed studies have documented a dramatic increase in infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia in the aftermath of US military bombardment. In Fallujah, doctors are witnessing a "massive unprecedented number" of heart defects, and an increase in the number of nervous system defects. Analysis of pre-2003 data compared to now showed that "the rate of congenital heart defects was 95 per 1,000 births - 13 times the rate found in Europe."
The purpose of the WHO study was to probe the data further, but some say the project is deeply flawed.
Dr. Keith Bavistock of the Department of Environmental Science, University of Eastern Finland, is a retired 13-year WHO expert on radiation and health. He told me that the new 'summary document' was at best "disappointing." He condemned the decision from "the very outset to preclude the possibility of looking at the extent to which the increase of birth defects is linked to the use of depleted uranium", and further slammed the document's lack of scientific credibility.
"This document is not of scientific quality. It wouldn't pass peer review in one of the worst journals. One of the biggest methodological problems, among many, is that the document does not even attempt to look at existing medical records in Iraqi hospitals - these are proper clinical records which document the diagnoses of the relevant cases being actually discovered by Iraqi doctors. These medics collecting clinical records are reporting higher birth defects than the study acknowledges. Instead, the document focuses on interviews with mothers as a basis for diagnosis, many of whom are traumatised in this environment, their memories unreliable, and are not qualified to make diagnosis."