Vietnamese physicians who have worked to cope with the aftermath of the Vietnam War say that health in that country is declining and there is a shortage of money to research the ravages left by the conflict.
While U.S. veterans have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, the Vietnamese have tried over the past 13 years to reclaim forests stripped bare by chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange and restore health services during poor economic conditions, physicians and others said Tuesday at a panel discussion."I think it is in the interest of both the United States and Vietnam that the citizens as well as our leaders begin talking," said former Sen. George McGovern of North Dakota, the keynote speaker at the American Public Health Association gathering. "That as much as anything will help heal the wounds of war."
McGovern called for normalizing diplomatic relations with Vietnam, pointing to the rapid normalization of relations with Germany and Japan after World War II.
Le Cao Dai, a Vietnamese physician who is studying the effects of Agent Orange in his country, echoed McGovern's calls for opening up diplomatic relations.
"It is time to reconciliate. To heal the wounds of the tragedy of the war," he said.
Dai said a study of toxins found in the breast milk of new mothers in South Vietnam showed a high level in the early 1970s, but it has since subsided to nearly normal levels.
Coping with the aftermath of the war has been difficult, said Nguyen Dinh Ngo, vice chairman of the Binh Tri Thien Province in central Vietnam, a site of heavy fighting during the war.
After the war, unexploded land mines, damaged forests and dead livestock were an immediate problem, Ngo said,reading a paper that was translated into English.
Then came natural disasters: a devastating flood in 1983 and a typhoon in 1985 that caused $50 million in damage.
"Since the end of the war, our people's health has been declining," Ngo said. "Many children are undernourished and get sick. The height and weight of newborn babies is declining.
But, he added, "Despite the many difficulties we face, progress is being made." People in the province are replanting trees and the water can now be used for domestic purposes, he said.
Ngo and another Vietnamese physician, Bui Tung, a surgeon at Hanoi Medical School, said assistance from several countries and private groups has helped Vietnam recover from the war.
Tung said reconstruction has erased many of the scars of war, and he showed a picture of a portion of a bombed-out bridge next to the rebuilt span. He said the government has concentrated on providing medical care, nourishment, mental care and assistance in resuming normal life and vocational training.
In the United States, refugees, particularly from Cambodia, are still being treated for war trauma, said Richard Mollica of the Southeast Asian Psychiatric Clinic in Boston.
Returning U.S. veterans also have suffered health problems. While claims of cancer, birth defects and other problems associated with exposure to Agent Orange have been disputed, the government has sponsored studies on the post-traumatic stress suffered by many veterans.
Jonathan Fine, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, said the lesson of Vietnam should be studied in a government-funded institute that would examine the medical consequences of wars.
Fine said health professionals have always played a key role in taking care of war wounded, but they have not taken an active role in preventing conflicts.
"It's time for the public health community to declare war on war," he said.