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Childhood leukemia doubles in Iraqi province

February 25, 2010

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Childhood leukemia rates in Basra, Iraq more than doubled over a 15-year period, peaking three years into the U.S.-led invasion of the country, according to a new study co-authored by SFU health sciences professor, Tim Takaro.

The oil-rich southern Iraqi province has been pummelled by three consecutive wars including the current conflict that began in 2003.

"We hope our calculations pave the way for investigating why the rates have climbed so high," say the authors of Trends in Childhood Leukemia in Basrah, Iraq (1993-2007).

"We also need to know why they are higher than the rates found in Kuwait, the European Union or the United States."

Takaro, the report’s senior author, collaborated with researchers at the University of Washington, Iraqi’s Mustansiriya and Basrah universities and Seattle’s’ Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Their findings were published in the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Using a hospital registry, the researchers documented 698 cases of leukemia—a cancer of the blood or bone marrow—in children aged 0-14 years from 1993-2007, peaking with 211 cases in 2006.

The leukemia rate jumped from three per 100,000 youngsters annually during the study’s first three years to 8.5 per 100,000 in the final three years, with younger children exhibiting higher leukemia rates than older kids.

The annual rates in the E.U. and U.S. during the same period were four and five per 100,000 children, respectively. Nearby Kuwait’s rate was about two per 100,000.

The researchers are now conducting a case-control study to compare children who got leukemia in the same period with those who did not.

"This helps researchers see if there are differences in exposures between the cases and the controls," explains Takaro.

"Exposures of interest could include the by-products of regional petroleum fires and benzene, which would have been in gasoline sold by children on the side of the road.

"Children were also exposed to war-related nerve agents, pesticides and depleted uranium munitions."

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