Nearly 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, its youngest victims are still in their infancy. Across the country, some babies are still being born with defects as a result of their parents’ exposure to dioxin found in in the crop-killing herbicide Agent Orange.
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31 May 2013 - 1:12 PM  UPDATED 3 Sep 2013 - 6:05 PM

Nearly 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, its youngest victims are still in their infancy. Across the country, some babies are still being born with defects as a result of their parents' exposure to dioxin found in in the crop-killing herbicide Agent Orange.

Three year old Dang Hong Dan was born with a cleft lip, and deformities in one hand and foot.

His mother, Oanh, told UNICEF workers in Vietnam she had a difficult pregnancy.

"I was sent to the hospital twice because of heavy bleeding," she said.

"After Dan was born, the doctor did some tests and told us that the cause of his disability was Agent Orange."

Both of Dan's parents work as hired labourers, taking work where they can get it.

"We take any job we can but the work is unstable," says his father, Phong. "We don't earn enough money to look after Dan properly."

(Image: Truong Viet Hung, courtesy UNICEF)

The family now receives assistance from a pilot scheme in An Giang province, where they live. The program, supported by UNICEF, aims to train local officials in basic social work and counselling skills.

This week, a team from UNICEF in partnership with AusAID travelled to Da Nang in Vietnam to launch their annual report on the State of the World's children, which focuses on children living with disability. AusAID Director Peter Baxter visited young victims of Agent Orange in Da Nang.

“In this area of Vietnam, there are about 5000 dioxin victims,” he says. “This is a real challenge for the government of Vietnam and the education authorities to ensure that these people have opportunities.

“The most common types of disabilities people suffer from, particularly children, are related to their mobility, to their intellectual development and to their hearing.”

There are about 1.2 million children living with disabilities in Vietnam. An estimated 150,000 of those are believed to be victims of Agent Orange. The US military sprayed around 12 million gallons (44 million litres) of the substance over the country from 1961 to 1971 as part of a program of chemical warfare.

Last year, the US government agreed to assist in clean-up efforts of Agent Orange, after a long period of bilateral discussions with the Vietnamese authorities.

Australia is not involved in the clean-up effort, but through AusAID is funding programs to help those affected by the substance as well as other children with disabilities.

Peter Baxter says Australia's historical link to Vietnam through its participation in the war was not an influence on the decision to allocate aid money there.

“We don't look at it through that lens, we look at it through the lens of it's not only the right thing to do, it's a smart thing to do to ensure that the human resources that are available in developing countries are actually used to benefit those societies.”

A UNICEF review of 14 developing countries found people with disabilities “more likely” to experience poverty than those with disabilities.

“If you look at global poverty, and you look at 20 per cent of the world's poorest people, you'll find disproportionately that people with disabilities are represented in that group, so if you're going to tackle global poverty, you have to tackle the issue of people with disabilities,” says Baxter.

Through its partnership with UNICEF, Australia provides $2.7 million in funding for programs in Vietnam in Bhutan.

“What we're trying to do is ensure that all of the programs AusAID supports, whether we do them directly or whether we do them through our partners like UNICEF, that disability inclusiveness is part of the design of those programs.”

Part of the funding will go towards training teachers to be better equipped for working with children with disabilities.