Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Blaming America by junk science

I have just read the March 4 BBC report Fallujah doctors report rise in birth defects, after following a link from the WIP site. I am quoting a part of it below:

"Doctors in the Iraqi city of Fallujah are reporting a high level of birth defects, with some blaming weapons used by the US after the Iraq invasion.
The city witnessed fierce fighting in 2004 as US forces carried out a major offensive against insurgents...

Doctors and parents believe the problem is the highly sophisticated weapons the US troops used in Fallujah six years ago.
British-based Iraqi researcher Malik Hamdan told the BBC's World Today programme that doctors in Fallujah were witnessing a "massive unprecedented number" of heart defects, and an increase in the number of nervous system defects.
She said that one doctor in the city had compared data about birth defects from before 2003 - when she saw about one case every two months - with the situation now, when, she saw cases every day.
Ms Hamdan said that based on data from January this year, the rate of congenital heart defects was 95 per 1,000 births - 13 times the rate found in Europe

A commenter has left the following remark at the WIP site: "Bloody warmongering U.S. commits war crimes with impunity. I am disgusted and ashamed. Sincerely."
I wrote, "Comparing the congenital heart defects incidence in Fallujah to that in Europe, rather than to that in the same city in earlier years, in other Iraqi cities or in other Mideast countries, should immediately raise the red flag. Hoffman et al. (2002) in their article "The incidence of congenital heart disease" (J Am Coll Cardiol, 2002; 39:1890-1900) point out that this incidence varies greatly depending on which defects you count, and that including all of them gives a rate of 75/1,000 live births - only a little less than reported here for Fallujah. Of course there may be true increase in birth defects causally linked to the US weapons; but so far, the data presented remind me the infamous "vaccines cause autism" speculation."
In fact, the 95/1,000 heart defects statistics is the only number cited in the BBC report. All other data are anecdotal, such as how many defects a doctor "saw" before and now (which could be due simply to her now seeing a larger total number of babies, or to her hospital acquiring better diagnostic equipment).
According to Hoffman et al., "there is no evidence for differences in incidence in different countries or times". I would add that even if there are significantly more birth defects in Fallujah than in Europe, the cause could be selective abortion of malformed fetuses after ultrasound diagnosis in Europe, higher prevalence of consanguineous marriages in Iraq, other genetic factors or environmental factors unrelated to the US-led war. Identifying correlation, let alone causation, is serious business. So far, the presented "data" seem to show only that the war has had psychological impact on Fallujah doctors and their patients.
Of course, we cannot exclude true increase in birth defects in Fallujah caused by the 2004 US operation. Weapons are not presumed or expected to be healthy. However, such an increase can be revealed only by research worth this name, preferably followed by publication(s) in peer-reviewed journal(s). I find it unfortunate that the BBC is so happy to embrace any piece of junk science (if not plain propaganda) as long as it makes the USA look bloody and warmongering.

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