The BBC has reported that a much anticipated study by the WHO and Iraqi Ministry of Health will show that rates of birth defects in Iraq are higher in areas that were subject to heavy fighting in 2003.

The report, broadcast on BBC World and available online features an interview with researchers at the Iraqi Ministry of Health (MoH). The researchers indicate that the report, which has been produced jointly by the WHO and MoH, will find that rates of birth defects are higher in areas of Iraq that were subjected to heavy fighting in the 2003 war. The publication of the final report, scheduled for early this year has been delayed, but the BBC’s report offers a first glimpse at the results.

The BBC’s report fits with our expectations from smaller localised studies and the reports of healthcare professionals in Iraq,” said an ICBUW spokesperson. “Naturally we will await the publication of the full report but should the findings and methodology prove to be robust, the study could add considerably to the pressure for action to reduce the legacy of modern conflict on public health. However more research will be needed to establish the precise risk factors responsible.

The study was launched after concern was generated by reports from medical staff in cities such as Fallujah and Baghdad of spiralling rates of congenital birth defects. Fallujah, which lies in Anbar province, has become particularly notorious and medical staff and civil society organisations have argued that the increases are linked to environmental contamination from the US led attacks on the city in 2004.

Speaking at a workshop for the project in early 2012 Dr Hawrami, Minister of Health of the Kurdistan Regional Government, said: “There is a need for a comprehensive programme to learn more about birth defects in Iraq that could shed light on the incidence of various conditions, such as congenital heart defects and neurological defects, in different geographic areas over time in Iraq.”

According to the WHO, the governorates in which the study has been conducted are Baghdad (Karkh and Rafafa), Diyala, Anbar (including the district of Fallujah), Suleimaniyah, Babel, Basrah, Mosul and Thi-Qar. Two districts were selected from each governorate (one as high risk and the other as a control).

The criteria for declaring a district as high risk is based on existing statistics showing a high number of congenital birth defect cases. A total of 10,800 households from 18 districts of the 8+1 governorates were selected as a sample size making it uniformly 600 households per district. All mothers in these households who were married, between the ages of 15 and 49 years, and who had a child with any congenital birth anomaly were included as respondents. Two-stage sampling was undertaken for each child; one before the onset of the 2003 war and the other after the onset of 2003 war.

The WHO in Iraq prioritised measuring the magnitude and trend of congenital birth defects at selected district level, identifying possible risk factors of congenital birth defects and assessing the burden of these conditions and impact on the health status of care providers.

Notes:BBC World: Doctors in Basra report rise in birth defects

WHO: Congenital birth defect study in Iraq: frequently asked questions