Operational research programme in Aral Sea claims first success

The MSF team in Tashkent is delighted that Global Environmental Facilities and the Food Agricultural Organisation have pledged US$ 500,000 for environmental and health programmes in the Aral Sea region. This is the first convincing success of the MSF research programme, which studied the relationship between environmental problems around the Aral Sea and the dire state of health of the population. The research showed that dioxin levels in the food were between 10 and 20 times higher than the daily safety norm. Dioxin concentrations, found in human milk, appear to have been absorbed through the food. The area has also been sprayed with pesticide mixes, which are more toxic and stable than the pure forms and have a stronger tendency to build up in animal fat tissue and - through food consumption - in humans. The promised money will be used for pesticide control, public information, health-risk monitoring, adapting legislation and other efforts. The WHO has also expressed interest and is organising a conference for September in Tashkent. When MSF began its work in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in Uzbekistan, in 1998, the team was convinced that the many health problems in the region were connected with serious environmental pollution, due to massive irrigation and use of pesticides on the cotton crops in the Soviet era. The general state of health in the region is poor. There is a high incidence of disorders such as immune deficiency, allergies and cancer. Levels of anaemia, liver diseases and TB are highly elevated above expected values. Many international organisations visited the area but nothing was done. MSF set up a research programme to prove scientifically the connection between health and the environment, and to spur the international community and national governments into action. Ian Small, head of the mission in Tashkent says "This is what we had in mind: identify a problem, listen to the fears and needs of the population, generate health data, involve local and international scientists and UN agencies and authorities and get them to do the job they are supposed to do. Beautiful! Now we'll see to it that real action is going to be taken". Besides the Operational Research Program, MSF set up a program for implementation of DOTS treatment for TB, together with the health authorities in the Aral Sea Area. Almost 5,000 patients have enrolled in the DOTS program so far.