A groundbreaking scientific conference on the lingering effects of Agent Orange - the poisonous defoliant widely used during the Vietnam War - ended in Hanoi last week with an impassioned plea from the President of the Vietnam Red Cross (VNRC) for more to be done to aid people still suffering from diseases and disabilities.
The VNRC President, Professor Nguyen Trong Nhan, called on conference delegates to keep in mind the human needs that still existed in Vietnam. People affected by Agent Orange need help now, he said, and cannot "wait years for more research." Rather than carrying out expensive tests to determine contamination, Professor Nhan said priority should be given to taking immediate steps to help victims. Many Vietnamese had "died in bitterness" without compensation, he told the conference.
The four-day Vietnam-United States Scientific Conference on Human Health and Environmental Effects of Agent Orange/Dioxin was the first joint conference on the issue held by the two former enemies. Last weekend they announced an agreement to conduct research into the birth defects and diseases attributed to Agent Orange, which was sprayed from the air during the war to deny communist troops jungle cover.
Key areas for research are expected to include spontaneous abortions, miscarriages, birth defects, neurological disorders and cancers.
Anne Sassaman of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, who signed the research agreement, said the hard part still lay ahead. "This framework for collaboration is an important step forward, but the more difficult task will be to develop research studies that are definitive and address the underlying causes of disease in Vietnam," she was quoted as saying.
In 1998, the Vietnamese government charged the country's Red Cross society with the administration of the Agent Orange Victims Fund, for which a web site is maintained at www.vnrc.org.vn/orange_fund/index.html. And the society now says the central fund and its local branches have collected about 17 billion Vietnamese dong ($1.2 million) from both domestic and foreign sources.
In its social work programmes, the VNRC sends volunteers to visit families to help them with housework and give them small gifts, but the society says the needs of these families soon multiply and become compounded; much more has to be done.
A VNRC disability programme coordinated with the Federation and supported by several donor Red Cross societies was also established to assist poor and disabled people, including those who could have been affected by Agent Orange.
The US stopped using the Agent Orange defoliant in 1971 after it was discovered that it contained a dangerous dioxin that caused cancer in laboratory animals. However, observers say the US government has always been relucant to acknowledge a direct link to birth defects and other serious medical problems in Vietnam.
Millions of Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange during the war. The Vietnamese Red Cross says local studies have shown that as many as a million people now have disabilities or other health problems associated with Agent Orange - approximately 100,000 of them being disabled children.
Every year, particularly in the areas heavily sprayed with Agent Orange, thousands of children are born with illnesses and birth deformities, some of them very severe, while thousands of adults develop cancer or other health problems, according to the VNRC.