Forty years after the end of the Vietnam War this is a country which should be rising back to its feet. Instead it is crippled by the effects of Agent Orange, a chemical sprayed during combat, stripping leaves off trees to remove enemy cover.
Its contaminant, dioxin — now regarded as one of the most toxic chemicals known to man — remains in Vietnam’s ecosystem, in the soil and in the fish people eat from rivers.
Nearly 4.8 million Vietnamese people have been exposed, causing 400,000 deaths; the associated illnesses include cancers, birth defects, skin disorders, auto-immune diseases, liver disorders, psychosocial effects, neurological defects and gastrointestinal diseases.
According to the Red Cross of Vietnam, up to one million people are currently disabled or have health problems due to Agent Orange, 100,000 of which are children.
In the capital’s Tu Du Hospital, within the Children’s Agent Orange ward lives 13-year-old Tran, with Fraser Syndrome. A rare genetic disorder, it’s characterised by completely fused eyelids, partially webbed fingers and toes and genital malformations. Tran’s nurses explain how he spends hours each day crying out relentlessly, rocking himself back and forth in his cot.
Named Agent Orange after the coloured stripe on the barrels it was stored in, the US Army, supporting the South Vietnamese, spent a decade from 1961, spraying approximately 80 million litres over 30,000 square miles of southern Vietnam. The aim was to “smoke out” and weaken the Viet Cong enemy of the north, by decreasing their food supplies.
Studies have shown that dioxin still remains at alarmingly high concentrations in soil, food, human blood and breast milk in people who live near former US military bases.