In 1968, as a young obstetrician in Ho Chi Minh City, Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong began to notice a strange pattern among the babies being born. “It was horrible,” Dr. Phuong recalls of her days working at Tu Du Hospital. “Every week we had about 2 or 3 or 4 cases of deformed babies born in the hospital. No eyes, no nose, deformed mouths.”
She was shocked and saddened by such a strange pattern, but it wasn’t until the end of the war in 1975 that Dr. Phuong began to see the connection between these deformities and the war in Vietnam.
“Many American veterans came to Tu Du hospital and asked about birth defects and cancers related to toxic chemicals sprayed over the southern part of Vietnam during the war,” Dr. Phuong recalls.
She was compelled to investigate, and has subsequently devoted her career to getting to the bottom of this issue. Her research has found that the percentage of reproductive problems, birth defects and other diseases is higher for people living in parts of Vietnam that were sprayed with Agent Orange/dioxin than for the general population. Moreover, the breast milk of mothers living in these areas contains dangerously elevated levels of dioxin (the toxic contaminant in Agent Orange) – an indicator that this problem is far from over for the affected Vietnamese.
“Victims are increasingly the millions of innocent newborn babies breastfed by their exposed mothers,” explains Dr. Phuong. “So dioxin may exert its effects over many generations of Vietnamese people!”
More than forty years since she first started noticing the harrowing effects of Agent Orange, Dr. Phuong still works with Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, and still performs surgeries nearly every day. However, she is also now the hospitals’ director, a position she has used to establish a “pregnant care network” to promote appropriate and quality births for women in remote areas of Vietnam.
In addition to her medical responsibilities, Dr. Phuong is a member of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group and a passionate advocate for a long-term solution to the continuing impact of Agent Orange in Vietnam. She writes and lectures widely and has testified before numerous government and scientific bodies, including the United States Congress.
“Dioxin is the most toxic man-made substance in terms of its effects on human beings. It destroys the environment, and biodiversity,” says Dr. Phuong. “It is a cruel destroyer of all life in my country.”