Funding for Scientologist Agent Orange treatment in question

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Critics allege project lacks scientific support and no one claims to know where the money is coming from
 
  Nguyen Thi Binh (L-background), 76, sits watching next to her mentally and physically disabled children Nguyen Thanh Cong, 37, (R-background), Nguyen Thi Phiet, 54 (R-foreground) and Nguyen Thi Phuoc, 50, at her home near the central Da Nang City's Airport on August 8. Photo: AFP

Nguyen Thi Hien has high hopes that she will be able to build a center to carry out the Hubbard method of "detoxification" treatment, developed by the Church of Scientology, for dioxin victims back home in Da Nang.

The chairwoman of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) chapter in the central city has been in Hanoi since last week leading a group of 23 patients who are being provided the controversial treatment by a new project the origins, and funding of which remain unclear.

"The patients are very uplifted to receive such free treatment," Hien told Vietweek on the phone.

But Hien said she and the 23 patients knew nothing about the "Hubbard method" developed by L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer who founded the Church of Scientology.

Experts in the field have criticized the method, which involves vitamin supplements, exercise and sauna therapy, saying it has not been vetted scientifically. They doubt such a method, originally developed to treat drug abuse, would help remove dioxin, the toxic chemical left behind by Agent Orange.

David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, is currently conducting research under a grant from the US Department of Defense to see if the program is effective in reducing the symptoms of Gulf War Illness, a disease found in American veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

"A major factor in the treatment is the use of increasing concentrations of the Vitamin niacin, which has long been known to act on fat stores in the body, where the dioxins are stored," Carpenter told Vietweek. "The Scientologists believe that the niacin mobilizes the contaminants from the fat store, which makes them more likely to be excreted. The use of the sauna is to make the person sweat, and that is supposed to help purge the chemicals out of the body."

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Scientologists have offered the service to a number of police and firefighters who were exposed to smoke and chemicals after the 9/11 collapse of the twin towers in New York.

Though reports from those studies said that most individuals who were sick before the program improved, Carpenter argued that the reports were authored by individuals associated with the church and that the findings were likely biased.

"There has not been any previous independent group to evaluate this detoxification program before our study, which is only now beginning," Carpenter told Vietweek.

"It is not going to harm people, but at the same time it is not right to promise something that may not be real," he said.

"To the best of my knowledge there have been no peer reviewed scientific articles which document the efficacy of these methods," said Arnold Schecter, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health.

Schecter, who has worked on medical and public health aspects of dioxins for several decades in a number of countries, also told Vietweek that although various methods have been used in attempts to reduce body levels of dioxins and dioxin-like chemicals, he was not aware of any successful results.

"With former Ukrainian President Yushchenko and others in Japan and Austria where certain approaches were attempted to lower dioxin levels, none were described as successful," Schecter told Vietweek.

In Japan, with the Yusho rice oil poisoning of 2,000 people with dioxin-like chemicals, the methods used to lower these toxic chemicals in some poisoned people did not appear to work either, he added.

"I would not expect that it [the Hubbard method] would lower the body burden of dioxin in a given person," Marcella L. Warner, a research epidemiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the long-term health effects of dioxin exposure, told The New York Times.

She said that a treatment focused on exercise and sweating would not be an effective way to rid the body of the toxin, according to the Times.

HISTORY REPEATS

Between 1961 and 1971, the US Army sprayed some 80 million liters of Agent Orange containing 366 kilograms of the highly toxic dioxin over 30,000 square miles of southern Vietnam.

Between 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese citizens were directly exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals that have been linked to cancers, birth defects and other chronic diseases during the Vietnam War, which ended in April 1975, according to the Vietnam Red Cross.

Last month the US began a project to clean up the soil at a former American airbase in Da Nang which is heavily contaminated with Agent Orange. Critics have said this move could be part of a larger US campaign to gain Asian allies and enhance US power in the region as a buffer against China.

The Association for Better Living and Education (ABLE), the website of which says the organization is financed by Scientologists and the Church of Scientology, originally brought the Hubbard method to Vietnam in 2005, when it gave funding to build a treatment center and provide vitamins, saunas, technology and training to the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) so that the Thai Binh chapter of the organization, which provided the rest of the funding, could carry out the method on 300 people from the northern province of Thai Binh, 22 of whom were Agent Orange victims.

VAVA reported at the outset of the project that it was not intended to eliminate dioxin in the patients, only to help them "feel better," a goal the organization said was accomplished.

ABLE also provided VND5 million each to the first 25 patients.

Dodging questions

But the answers to two questions about the newest Scientology treatment project in Vietnam remain unclear: How were the 23 patients chosen? And, more importantly, who is paying for the project?

Christopher Hodges, a spokesman for the US embassy in Hanoi, said the US government has neither endorsed nor financed the program.

Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Rinh, chairman of the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), said his organization was not involved in the new project, though he acknowledged VAVA's role in the 2005 Thai Binh program.

He said Office 33, a government agency set up to coordinate the various programs designed to overcome the various consequences of the use of herbicides during the Vietnam War, was involved in the program.

But Office 33 also denied its involvement.

Hien from VAVA Da Nang said she was presented with a list of patients by the Hanoi-based Military Hospital 103, where the Hubbard treatment is currently underway, and she did not know how they had been chosen or who was paying for the project, only that it was free for the individuals receiving treatment.

Hoang Manh An, the hospital director, dismissed speculation that his hospital was behind the project.

He said the blood samples were taken and the patients selected by "different government agencies under different projects."

Asked by Vietweek to spell out the names of such agencies and projects, An said in a vexed voice: "Why do you keep asking about this? That's not something you should care about."

He also declined to comment on how much progress has been made on the treatment for the patients, saying doctors had taken blood samples and sent them abroad for testing.

"You should only know that these patients came from dioxin-contaminated areas and need care. That's all."

According to a The New York Times report, An said information about the project would not be released until an official announcement at an undisclosed date in the future.

Vietweek asked both the Church of Scientology and ABLE if either organization was behind the funding for the project, but had yet to receive a reply by press time.

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