A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

February 1999/March 1999

Agent Orange/Dioxin Committee Report

Progress In Vietnam

By Paul Sutton, Vice-Chair

I traveled to Hanoi on January 3, joining VVA's Veterans Initiative delegation. The purpose of the trip was to determine the status of the birth defect study undertaken by the Veterans Association of Vietnam (VAVN) and to contribute $500 to VAVN for the survey of its 1.4 million members.  This endeavor is a continuation of the veteran-to-veteran effort VVA began in Vietnam in May 1994.

On January 4, the VVA delegation visited a Peace Village near Hanoi built in 1997 by the German government. The tour was hosted by Nguyen Khai Hung, the facility director. Lt.Gen. Vu Xuan Vinh, Col. Thinh,  Ho Xuan Dich of the VAVN, and Dr. Nguyen Tuan Anh of the 10-80 Committee also attended. VVA participants were Tom Corey, Janet Alheit, Bill Duker, Bob Necci, Bob Maras, Jack Thomas, and myself. The village provides a variety of therapies for children with physical and psychological birth defects and for Vietnamese veterans with medical and psychological difficulties believed to stem from their exposures to herbicides.

We saw more than two dozen children who had a variety of minor physical birth defects and who also were profoundly mentally retarded. All are offspring of veterans who served in the war. The children receive physical therapy, as well as speech therapy and help in raising them to a level where they later can function in sheltered workshops. Very few ever will rejoin their families because of the families' poverty.

We met with fifteen veterans who are experiencing memory loss and other psychological disabilities believed to be related to their exposure to Agent Orange. We also saw what we believed was significant evidence of PTSD among these veterans. Several showed us their severe skin problems and limb atrophy. Several have fathered multiple birth-defect children. They had been exposed to herbicides for between four and seven years.

Director Hung and the VAVN representatives hosted a press conference attended by Paul Alexander of the Associated Press, Andy Soloman of Reuters, and a reporter and photographer from the Peoples Army Times. The press pool provided information to all of Vietnam's newspapers.

Gen. Vinh said he looked forward to a cooperative and productive relationship between VAVN and VVA that would lead to a better life for his people and for Americans. Vinh said that the VAVN and several Vietnamese governmental agencies had begun to coordinate studies, the first of which would be completed during 1999. He also said that humanitarian efforts are underway. He emphasized that medical care for his people needs to be the highest priority, and he encouraged a close working relationship between VVA's Agent Orange/Dioxin Committee and VAVN's 10-80 Committee. He said that his people were deeply appreciative of VVA's efforts to see that legislation is introduced in Congress to appropriate $1.5 million to fund research in Vietnam that will benefit all exposure victims.

Tom Corey responded that it was VVA's hope that the Vietnamese desire for a better life for their people could be realized, and that answers to the many questions about exposure to Agent Orange during the war finally could be answered. Gen. Vinh said that the Vietnamese believe that more than 100,000 children suffer from birth defects and more than two million Vietnamese veterans have physical and psychological problems related to Agent Orange exposure.

On January 6, accompanied by Bui Van Nghi of the Vietnam/USA Society, I met with Dr. Hoang Dinh Cau and Dr. Anh of the 10-80 Committee at the Hanoi Medical School. During the morning's discussion, we touched on several issues relating to the possibility of U.S. government-funded research in Vietnam. The Vietnamese said they would welcome any American assistance.

The Vietnamese said that the information requested in the birth-defects questionnaire provided to the VAVN is being gathered in the clinics and the peace villages that the committee oversees. The committee and the government take the view that these peace villages are the answer' to treating the victims of Agent Orange.

The committee's progress, we were told, has been hampered by inadequate funding and scientific resources. We discussed the status of congressional legislation that would appropriate $1.5 million for preliminary research. Dr. Cau said that he would like to begin working on cooperative agreements now, even before any congressional approvals are realized.

The Vietnamese assured me that governmental clearances for their use of surplus or outdated American medical equipment would not be difficult to procure.  We also discussed the donation of electrical equipment. They told me they use a transformer that converts 110v output to 220v, thereby eliminating equipment incompatibilities.

We discussed the relationship between the committee and the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment (MoSTE), the environment-research agency that the committee reports to. Dr. Cau said that the results of their research could be made available to VVA and the U.S. government. Following the formal meeting, the committee told us that their interpretation of Pentagon data found that a total of 28 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971.

That study indicates that the parts per trillion (ppt) dioxin levels in the soil are seven times the background levels. In Vietnamese males born before the war, the dioxin level in their human tissue samples is 28 ppt. In males born since the war's end, the dioxin levels are 24 ppt. (The human body eliminates one-half of its dioxin level every 7.1 years.) Soil samples taken from areas surrounding major base camps in 1997 contained 61 ppt. In sprayed areas, the levels were 32 ppt.

That evening, I discussed Agent Orange with Paul Berg, First Secretary at the U.S. Embassy. Berg said that, as a part of the agreement between our government and Vietnam concerning normalizing relations, the Vietnamese agreed not to demand reparations for damages caused by herbicides. However, he said, the issue of Agent Orange's victims comes up at every meeting he attends with officials in the provinces.

On Thursday afternoon, January 7, again accompanied by Bui Van Nghi, I met with Col. Trinh and Ho Xuan Dich of the VAVN. We discussed the ongoing cooperation between VAVN and the 10-80 Committee. The VAVN contribution to the effort has largely been outreach and coordination between the various government agencies. They asked if VVA or other non-government organizations would contribute to their new foundation, which was established to help Agent Orange victims. The VAVN works closely with the Vietnam Red Cross in providing medical care to the victims.

On January 8, Nghi and I met with Nguyen Hoa Binh and Le Bich Thuy of MoSTE. I gave them an overview of the meetings that I had attended during the past week, copies of documents we had distributed, and a summary of the messages that had been passed along at each meeting. They expressed their happiness at the possibility of  $1.5 million in U.S. funding and expressed willingness to work with Dr. Schecter.

They said that issues of concern or research proposals should be addressed in writing to the minister well in advance of any research being initiated. Since MoSTE is in charge of all research in Vietnam, and since the agency coordinates research through the other ministries, a clear paper trail must be initiated with them. Inquiries or requests to initiate research should be sent to:  Professor Dr. Chu Tuan Nha, Minister, The Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment, 39 Tran Hung Dao, Hanoi. The phone number is:  84-4-825-2920; fax:  84-4-825-1730 or 84-4-825-2233.

At the conclusion of the meeting, I presented them with a VVA Agent Orange flag, which they were pleased to accept.

Conclusions and Recommendations

It is essential that VVA maintain a strong, viable lobbying effort in Congress on the critical issue of research in Vietnam. Since 1994, VVA has been a leader in advocating for this research. For many years, it was the only VSO urging this step.

The Agent Orange/Dioxin Committee, following its first trip to Vietnam in February 1995, presented a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for discussion with the Veterans Association of Vietnam. This MOU, approved by the VVA Board of Directors, advanced in-country research proposals that were raised with the Vietnamese and accepted by the VAVN during a September 1995 delegation visit. This latest trip permitted VVA and the committee to further the dialogue with the VAVN, the 10-80 Committee, and MoSTE. The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi was surprisingly supportive. All of these contacts will serve to better coordinate the research once it gets under way.
 
This work will continue the close working relationship between VVA and the Vietnamese scientific community, and will pave the way for unhampered research benefiting both nations. It also will develop a closer relationship with the VAVN. The data-gathering phase of this survey should be completed before the end of 1999.

As stipulated by the 1995 MOU, VVA  and the VAVN agreed to gather data on the numbers and types of birth defects experienced by children born since the war's end. This is of particular importance because the kinds of birth defects experienced by the Vietnamese today are nearly the same as those experienced by the children of VVA members. It is expected that finalization of the VAVN survey will take an additional six months. The data should be correlated and interpreted by an unbiased, independent third party with scientific expertise.

Together, the veterans of both countries will work with that third party to develop a protocol that will compare exposed birth-defect children with unexposed birth-defect children. The object will be to determine what exposure to dioxin by parents in the world's most dioxin-exposed nation amounts to in numbers and types of birth defects experienced by their children. And, finally, we will develop a methodology to compare the data in the United States about birth-defect children born to Vietnam veterans during and following the war's end.

After data comparisons are complete, VVA can continue to press the legislative agenda to seek relief for the parents of birth-defect children where at least one of those parents is a Vietnam veteran whose exposure to dioxin in Vietnam can be verified. This will place VVA in a better position to press for the long-delayed National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) research in Vietnam.

VVA must maintain its leadership role in insuring adequate funding of objective scientific research in Vietnam on Agent Orange/dioxin. Valid research seems even more attainable after these latest meetings and the very real possibility of U.S-funded research in Vietnam. We will remain in the vanguard of the search for the link between parental exposure and birth-defect offspring. We now have the rare chance to resolve a tragically old problem.

 
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