Albion Monitor /News

Some Kurds Have Illness Like Gulf War Syndrome

by Judith Perera

Same patterns as western soldiers
(IPS) LONDON -- The medical problems suffered by the survivors of Iraq's 1988 chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja are strikingly similar to the symptoms of Gulf War syndrome, says one of the few medical experts to visit it in the ten years since.

"Halabja was a town of 45,000," says professor Christine Gosden, head of Medical Genetics at Liverpool University in northwest England. "Of those, 5,000 died in the attack. I wanted to see what had happened to the others, especially the women and children. Of course I hoped they would be well.

"But tragically that was not the case. Many are very ill and in a dreadful state."

She estimates that over half the population of the town has major respiratory disorders
Gosden, interviewed in London by IPS, accompanied British journalist Gwynne Roberts to Halabja in January to make a television documentary.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's chemical arsenal includes mustard gas, which causes blistering of the skin and lungs and several types of nerve gas -- tabun, sarin, soman and VX. All of these, with the possible exception of VX, were used at Halabja.

Reports of cyanide use have since been attributed to gas from decaying soman.

While the health problems of the Halabja villagers are clearly far more acute, they show the same patterns as western soldiers who are victims of so-called Gulf War Syndrome, she says. "It is the same collection of predictable problems and abnormalities, which suggests they were exposed to the same chemicals."

Gosden believes troops in the Gulf War were exposed to all of these when ammunition dumps were destroyed. The smoke that hung over the desert for days were full of these chemicals, she says, noting that sarin does not burn but would have been vaporized.

She also points out that pyrostigmine bromide -- the nerve gas antidote supplied to the troops -- is only effective against soman and not the other nerve agents.

Before she left for Halabja, Gosden had made some predictions about the medical problems she would find, aware of the effects of the chemicals involved. These included respiratory, skin and eye problems, cancers, congenital abnormalities miscarriages, neurological and psychiatric disorders and bone problems, amongst others.

On her arrival she arranged for a radio broadcast asking those with problems to come forward. "Over 700 came on the first day, very angry and desperate. And of those 495 had two or more serious conditions."

She estimates that over half the population of the town has major respiratory disorders including asthma, bronchitis and pulmonary fibrosis. This is due mainly to exposure to mustard gas, as were the eye problems which she describes as "diverse and horrible."

Some have been blinding by the severe scars left on the cornea by the agents. Others live with permanent soreness and itching. Skin problems include cancers such as basal cell carcinoma which advances very rapidly. This, again is mainly due to the mustard gas. "Still 10 years after the attack many people suffer skin irritations, eruptions, scarring, terrible itching and burning sensations," she says.

Many people are suffering from neurological disorders and psychiatric problems -- the long term effects of exposure to nerve gas
To get some idea of the incidence of birth defects, Gosden made comparisons with the nearby town of Sulaimaniyah, which is 10 times the size of Halabja. She found that the incidence of harelips and cleft palates, spina bifida, congenital heart defects, Down's syndrome and other major chromosomal disorders were all over three times higher in Halabja.

The same ratios were found in cases of miscarriages and unexplained infant deaths that she believes may be mostly due to undiagnosed heart defects.

In addition, many men and women have become infertile. There is also a high rate of childhood leukemias and lymphomas. Many people are suffering from neurological disorders and psychiatric problems -- the long term effects of exposure to nerve gas. But these receive no treatment at all.

She describes Halabja as a human and ecological disaster area.

"It's not just the people who have been affected by the chemicals, but the plants and animals have also mutated. Snakes have become bigger, more aggressive and more venomous and deaths from snake bites have increased. The locusts are much bigger and eat through leather and PVC. Grain and fruit yields are all down."

And with all its problems, Halabja has just one surgeon and one gynecologist to treat all those who are ill. They are paid the equivalent of just $20 a month. The hospital has no scanners, x-ray facilities, cleaning instruments, or operating gowns and very few drugs or surgical instruments.

There is no radiotherapy or chemotherapy to treat the cancers, so the only option is radical surgery.

There are no laboratory facilities and the nearest pathologist is in Sulaimaniya, where the situation is almost as bad. The hospital cannot afford hating or hot water.

To deal with all legacy of the chemical attack, Halabja needs money, equipment and many more doctors, including a pediatrician, neurologist, psychiatrist and anaesthetist, as well as surgical instruments and medicines.

In these dire circumstances, collecting a processing information was difficult. Gosden managed to get just two hours sleep a night while she was there. "There was only one of me to try to gather the data, process it and stay alive."

When they realized the extent of the problem, Gosden and the journalists gave the hospital what money they had -- around $1,000. The next day the hospital had heating.

"When we left I gave them everything I had taken with me -- instruments, books, paper and pens. The gynecologist cried when I gave her my stethoscope," recalls Gosden.

She is now writing up her findings for a prominent medical journal. "But the real situation is probably much worse than the data suggests, because many people are just dying at home undiagnosed from undiagnosed cancers, leukemias and unseen defects," she says.

But worst of all the people of Halabja are still in terrible danger, she says, for the town is not covered by the U.S.-led western airforces that still enforce a post war "no-fly zone" over northern Iraq. "It could happen to them again," she says. And if the world continues to ignore them, the danger will be even greater.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor March 16, 1998 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page