Scientology in Vietnam: open welcome or backdoor entry?

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While Vietnam hopes the "˜Purification Rundown' will provide succor for Agent Orange victims, critics say the controversial movement is seeking legitimacy in new places

In this photo taken on March 18, 2013, two patients are seen at a sauna room with two loaves of bread heated up at the Health Center of Vietnam Association of Agent Orange Victims in Thai Binh Province, Vietnam. The center runs a 25-day health program which, as well as massive consumption of vitamins, includes four-hour sauna sessions and a morning run. While there is no medical evidence that the treatment at the center is effective, Vietnamese authorities are supporting it as a way of relieving some of the suffering of the between 2 and 4 million people suffering from illnesses linked to exposure to Agent Orange during the war. PHOTO: Na Son Nguyen

Are the Vietnamese grasping at straws and/or playing unwittingly into the hands of the Church of Scientology?

This is a question that looks set to be debated for a long time in international and domestic circles, but for now, Vietnamese authorities have apparently embraced the controversial "detoxification" treatment developed by the church to help Agent Orange victims.

But yet another question has puzzled many. How did the treatment make its way to Vietnam?

Some international experts in the field say the answer is obvious.

Given the genuine desire of Vietnamese authorities to ease the pain of affected people, "they [have] simply grasped at anything, any treatment, that would seem to be successful in rendering contaminated people cured or "˜feel better'," said Wayne Dwernychuk, an Agent Orange specialist and retired senior scientist at Canadian environmental firm Hatfield.

"What is now happening in Vietnam with the use [of the detoxification treatment] is simply an exercise in psychology"¦ only addressing people's fears, and in no way reducing the level of dioxin contamination in their bodies," Dwernychuk told Vietweek.

The Church of Scientology's Purification Rundown, also known as the Hubbard Method, is a 25-day detoxification program that involves high vitamin dosages, lengthy saunas, and obligatory morning jogging.

Scientologists believe the method can effectively treat the lingering effects of drug abuse or exposure to toxic substances. They say the treatment can purge the body of dioxin, the toxic chemical in Agent Orange that has been linked by researchers to cancers, birth defects and other diseases.

The method has drawn flak from scientists worldwide. The church itself has failed to present any scientifically vetted, peer reviewed paper on the success of the treatment.

Worse still, some experts say there is the danger of overdosing, even on vitamins. The use of Niacin, for example, far exceeds the daily recommended dose by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA warns that taking too much niacin can lead to "liver problems, gout, ulcers of the digestive tract, loss of vision, high blood sugar, irregular heartbeat, and other serious problems."

For now, however, Vietnamese authorities seem to be ignoring the controversy and nursing hopes that an increasing number of Agent Orange victims will be able to get the treatment.

More than 600 people, mostly Agent Orange victims, have undergone the treatment so far at a center in the northern province of Thai Binh under the auspices a Scientology-funded sister organization, The Association of Better Living and Education.

"The patients are very positive about receiving the treatment. Everything is going very smoothly," Nguyen Duc Hanh, chairman of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) chapter in Thai Binh that monitors the program, told Vietweek.

Hanh's upbeat assessment was echoed by his counterpart Nguyen Thi Hien, chairwoman of the local chapter of VAVA in the central city of Da Nang.

Hien said the Da Nang municipal administration has given the go-ahead for building the first center for dioxin detoxification in human victims in the city using the same Scientology treatment.

"I just can't wait for that day," she said.

Last September, Hien led a group of 23 patients who were being provided the treatment as a placebo at the Military Hospital 103 in Hanoi.

Hien said she had been presented with a list of patients by the hospital, but there has been no information about the criteria applied for choosing them.

Hoang Manh An, the hospital director, said blood samples of the patients have been taken before and after the treatment, and these would be sent to Germany this month to determine if there has been any change in the dioxin levels.

An said his hospital staff were also planning to pilot the treatment for people in the central province of Binh Thuan and Dong Nai in southern Vietnam, where Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides were mixed, stored, loaded onto planes and spilled by US military personnel during the war.

"We are doing this for four million Vietnamese people, so the treatment's effectiveness has to be determined through careful scientific study and systematic tests," he said.

Cult or religion?

Founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology teaches that technology can expand the mind and help solve problems. It claims 10 million members the world over, including Hollywood celebrities Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

But throughout its history, the church has "battled accusations, legal challenges and government scrutiny around the world over accusations it is a secretive cult that preys on vulnerable people," the Associated Press said in a report on April 4.

The US, along with some European countries like Spain and Sweden, has recognized the church as a religion. The US has in fact rapped Belgium and Germany for labeling Scientology as a cult or sect and promulgating laws to restrict its operations.

But most Americans do not recognize Scientology. Seventy percent of respondents in a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll said it was not a real religion, Reuters reported last year. Less than 100,000 Americans practice Scientology, the newswire said.

Scientologists have claimed that their "rundown" treatment worked for victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. But in 1996 Russia prohibited "the advertising and use in health protection of any methods following from the teaching of Ron Hubbard," according to Metaphrasis, a religious information service.

Scientologists have also offered the treatment 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 say that the condition of most individuals who were sick before the program improved, critics say that they were authored by individuals associated with the church and the findings were likely biased.

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 "rundown" treatment is effective in reducing the symptoms of Gulf War Illness, a disease found in American veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

But "we have encountered a lot of opposition to our study here, which is one reason it has not started yet," Carpenter said.

"I am very aware of the many criticisms of the Church of Scientology, which isn't really a religion at all."

In February 2012, a French appeals court upheld a 2009 fraud conviction against the Church of Scientology for pressurizing members into paying large sums for books, courses and "purification packages."

In the latest allegations against the church, two former bigwigs at a Scientology-linked drug treatment center in Oklahoma have come forward to expose what they call deceitful marketing techniques and underqualified staff, according to a report by Rock Center with Brian Williams, an American weekly television newsmagazine broadcast by NBC.

They allege that Narconon advertises a bogus success rate of 75 percent to lure in desperate families of addicts and hires recent graduates to be counselors without any traditional drug treatment training, the report said.

Narconon is a Scientology front group that claims to run the detoxification program. One of the central techniques that it uses is the Purification Rundown. The entire Narconon program, however, involves working through nine workbooks that are filled with numerous scientology concepts, in addition to the Purification Rundown. 

In an interview broadcast April 5, Lucas Catton, who stepped down as president of Narconon's Arrowhead facility in Oklahoma in 2004 and his former colleague Eric Tenorio, the former executive director of Narconon's Freedom Center in Michigan, said: "Narconon preys on vulnerable people. That's part of the sales techniques."

"˜Desperate people'

Rubina Qureshi, vice president of The Association of Better Living and Education (ABLE) International, confirmed that the Scientology-funded sister organization had funded the treatment program at both the Thai Binh center and the Military Hospital 103.

Qureshi shrugged off allegations that the "rundown" treatment was junk medicine, saying it was "insulting."

"We are happy that we are contributing to helping the Vietnamese people find solutions to these debilitating problems and to improve the quality of their lives," Qureshi said.

Hanh, head of the VAVA's Thai Binh chapter, said the treatment has been carried out since early 2011 on a monthly basis for around 30 patients each time.

He said he was aware of the global controversy over the treatment, but insisted that this program was "practically effective for the patients.

"There is nothing mysterious and supernatural in this treatment. They [the Scientologists] did it for philanthropic purposes."

Now that the know-how transfer has been completed, the Scientologists have departed and the center is currently paying for the purchase of vitamins and other expenses, he said.

Tran Van Tu, a war veteran hailing from the north-central province of Nghe An, was exposed to Agent Orange during the war and received treatment at the Thai Binh center last November.

"I no longer suffer headaches and backaches whenever the weather changes. I have been able to move much more easily since," Tu wrote in a letter posted on the center's website.

"This treatment should be expanded so more people outside the province can get it," he said, expressing gratitude to the center staff.

Stephen Kent, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta in Canada who has studied Scientology, said the Purification Rundown is part of Scientology's global effort to eliminate psychiatry and related mental health procedures and replace them with its own "pseudo-mental health techniques." 

"Desperate people with no other options have so much invested emotionally in the program that their reports about feeling better simply may reflect their psychological  hopes more than any objective reality," he said.

The real disgrace

Meanwhile, many academics, activists and other experts have said the real disgrace is that the American government, whose actions during the war have caused intergenerational damage from its use of chemicals, has not thrown the full weight of its medical resources into treating the victims.

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.

Dioxin, a highly toxic chemical in the defoliant used by the US troops to strip Vietnamese forces of ground cover and food, stays in the soil and sediment at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations. It can enter the food supply through the fat of fish and other animals and has been found at alarmingly high levels in breast milk that dioxin-contaminated mothers have fed their children.

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.

Washington has dismissed these estimates. It has maintained that there is no clear link between Agent Orange and the myriad health problems.

Christopher Hodges, a US embassy spokesman, said the American government neither has specific information on this detoxification program nor endorses it.

Hodges said the US has provided $54 million since 1989 to help Vietnamese with disabilities, but also stressed that such assistance was "regardless of cause."

At the same time, however, the US has come to acknowledge a number of conditions and diseases as associated with Agent Orange exposure in its own veterans and compensated them. It refuses to do so for the Vietnamese, who were on the receiving end of the spraying.

"Such blatant hypocrisy is mindboggling," said Dwernychuk, the Canadian expert.

Benefit of the doubt

Experts say one cannot blame Vietnamese authorities for experimenting with a scientifically unproven method of detoxification, particularly after they have highlighted the problem to the US and the international community at large for decades and received no proper response.

But whether the Vietnamese authorities should be given the benefit of the doubt remains an elusive question.

Qureshi of ABLE International said it was Office 33, a government agency set up to coordinate the various programs designed to overcome the consequences of the use of toxic herbicides during the Vietnam War, that had been instrumental in cooperating with ABLE International to set up the treatment programs at the Thai Binh center and Military Hospital 103.

Le Ke Son, deputy general director of Vietnam's Environmental Administration, confirmed to Vietweek  such "cooperation".

Son said Vietnam has approached the treatment with "goodwill" but it would conduct its own studies to determine the effectiveness of the program.

Asked if the acceptance of the Scientology treatment in Vietnam would further the legitimacy of the church, An, the military hospital director, said he was well aware of such concerns but there is no need to worry.

"We've made it crystal clear: We only accept the transfer of the [treatment] know-how," said An.

"The Scientologists were also very pleased with that."

Critics say that after being hounded in countries like France, Canada, and the US, the Church of Scientology is seeking to establish new markets in other parts of the world. 

"Asia could prove to be a goldmine for the program, with Vietnam being its entry point into the region," said Kent, the Canadian sociology professor.

"Consequently, Vietnamese officials should respond appropriately to this ineffective program, because the program has implications not only for their country's citizens but also for people throughout Southeast Asia," he said.

The church sent volunteers to Asia to administer another of its treatments, a massage called a "touch assist," in the aftermath of disasters including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 2008 Myanmar cyclone, the Associated Press report said.

An, who is also a major-general, said that after the first phase of piloting the treatment last November, the hospital and the Scientologists have been in "regular touch" to compare notes.

"The first step [of collaboration] is very good," he said.

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