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The Less Obvious Effects of War in the Arab World: Birth Defects

posted on: Sep 1, 2016

BY: Haya Bacharouch/Ambassador Blogger

For more than a decade, the Middle East and North Africa have endured constant unrest. Countries including Iraq, Syria, and Tunisia have been intoxicated by constant bombings and exploited due to the lack of proper health care. Besides the ongoing psychological trauma and humanitarian offenses that the citizens of these countries have gone through, there will always be a lingering reminder of the effects of invasions and civil wars – congenital birth defects.

The environment that the citizens of these countries once knew has become venomous, particularly for childbearing mothers. In Iraq, it was found that depleted uranium, a poisonous heavy metal, was used by the United States on Iraqis. In 2013, there was a massive chemical attack of white phosphorous on the Syrian people. The aftermath of these attacks do not just dissipate into the air and go away. They have long-lasting effects on the environment, animals, and humans that have been exposed to the harmful substances.

When depleted uranium is burned, it is chemically toxic, and damages vital organs, such as the lungs and kidneys. Not only does it to transfer to organs, but it also becomes embedded within bones for many years, exhibiting radiation.

Because of the severity of the radiation, women who are pregnant can pass the exposure onto their children. Congenital defects are not only the issue with this type of radiation, it also causes many miscarriages and stillborn births. The common deformities that are found include limb deformities, stunted extremities, cleft lips, internal organs on the outside of the body, and webbed fingers and toes, according to Dr. Al-Sabbak, a gynecologist from Basra Maternity Hospital.

The rise of congenital birth defects began in Iraq in 1991, which has increased every year since. One of the highest birth defects and mortality rates in Iraq are in the city of Fallujah, where the statistics are quite shocking. Data from National Library of Medicine and National Institute of Health shows that no baby is left unaffected by hereditary radiation exposure:

“In September 2009, 170 children were born at Fallujah General Hospital, 24% of whom died within 7 days, 75% of those exhibited deformities including children born with two heads, no head, a single eye in their foreheads or missing limbs. The comparable data for August 2002 recorded 530 births of whom 6 died and only one of whom was deformed [54]. Environmental campaigners believed that either white phosphorus or DU, is a major if not only, cause of birth defects [71].”

The trend does not stop in Fallujah. It has also been seen in a number of cities throughout Iraq and now Syria.

Chemical attacks are not the sole reason for congenital birth defects; it is also the lack of access to healthcare. In Syria, for example, many doctors have fled the country due to its state of civil war. However, there are still many brave and courageous doctors that take to the hospital daily. They are limited by their supplies, medication, and the proper tools necessary to bring about the best health possible.

These doctors have reported a staggering number of birth defects. One of the bigger cases of birth defects that they have been dealing with is Anencephaly, which causes babies to have an absence of a major portion of the brain, skull, and scalp. Anencephaly takes place during the embryonic development stage of pregnancy. The cause of Anencephaly is assumed to be the lack of accessibility of folic acid, which is fundamental to having a healthy pregnancy and birth.

The majority of babies diagnosed with Anencephaly dies after birth or is stillborn. Dr. Liu, the leader of a health care charity organization in Syria, spoke to the Independent about the birth deformities that she has seen in the hospital:

“We saw so many cases of babies born with malformations, and cases of Anencephaly. Some babies were born without heads,” she told The Independent. “I was trained as a pediatrician and have never seen anything this severe in my 20 years in practice.”

It is a heartbreaking situation to see families who are already going through war, loss, and havoc to suffer even more devastation by enduring – what is supposed to be a celebration of new life and joy – either a stillborn child, miscarriage, or birth defect that may leave a child in pain for life. Victims of war suffer far more than meets the eye. While we see tragic photos of small children suffering in war torn countries in the Arab world, most will never realize just how lucky they are to be alive, while still living in disastrous conditions.

Haya Bacharouch is a fifth grade teacher living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. You can follow her on Facebook