The Australian government has launched an investigation into whether herbicides sprayed on jungle areas during the Vietnam war are causing health problems for its veterans and genetic defects in children of veterans.
A team of more than 100 paramedics is scheduled to check the health of 160, 000 Australians, including all who fought in the Vietnam war and their children. In addition to 41,000 veterans, the survey will look at a "control" group of 20, 000 armed services personnel of similar ages.
Australia's decision to launch the $2 million, two-year research project follows a high-powered campaign by the nation's Vietnam war veterans, who claim the government has failed to provide them with benefits to compensate for damages suffered as a result of coming into contact with herbicides. One such herbicide is the controversial Agent Orange, used by the United States between 1962 and 1971 to destroy enemy ground cover.
The US Congress has held hearings on the question of illnesses caused by exposure to herbicides, and a recently passed legislation directs the Veterans administration to study herbicide effects. Thousands of US veterans have applied for VA benefits claiming herbicide-caused illness.
While Australia's research project is welcomed by the Returned Services League, the largest organization of veterans, it is criticized by a committee of Vietnam veterans that favors judicial investigation. The national president of Vietnam Veterans' Action Association, Holt McMinn, says, "The inquiry is a delaying tactic. . . . Some of our members haven't got that long to live."
The association plans to apply to the Australian High Court to issue 6,000 writs against the commonwealth government and the manufacturers of chemicals used in Vietnam.
More than 1,000 Australians have applied for benefits they claim were caused by illnesses linked to exposure to chemicals in Vietnam.
Only a few have been medically examined, however. While it is acknowledged that some have disabilities caused by their service in Vietnam, none of the injuries have been officially linked to exposure to chemicals.
The government decided to make a full-scale inquiry into possible links between herbicides and health problems of veterans and their children following a preliminary investigation by the Commonwealth Institute of Health at Sydney University.
Veterans Affairs Minister Evan Adermann said the rarity of diseases that may spring from chemicals makes it imperative that all veterans be examined.
Mr. Adermann has promised the government will compensate children veterans who have suffered as a result of this problem.