A woman with a mission. ORAL ATANVFAZOVA, at 39, finds herself in the midst of a salvage operation aimed at providing succour to the teeming massess In the disease-afflicted areas of the Aral Sea basin. Starting with being an obstetrician and gynaecologist, she progressively got involved in the terrible environmental disaster. She specialised in gynaecological surgery in 1986-87. Later she realised that even that would not help. Today' she is a committed scientist running an NGO. Ataniyazova is gifted with the rare ability to deal with awesome, daunting situations, which includes her once tormented family life. But most of her present problems relate to the backwardness of the country and bureaucratic hassles. Ataruyazova spoke to Anil Agarwal in Nukus
Can you describe the nature of the health problems encountered by you because of the Aral Sea crisis?
The data analysed by us shows that we have increasing levels of anaernia in this region. Our research covers the period from 1982 to 1992 - when the Soviet system was still on and the economy was stable. Yet, in that period the rate of anaemia was found to have increased 5 times. Some scientists consider anaernia to be only a diet-related problem. But during that time we had no change in our diet. We have also had an increasing rate of maternal mortality, kidney and liver-related diseases, birth abnormalities and cancer.
Our research showed that our women have many pregnancy complications - toxaemia, haemorrhages, kidney and liver-related diseases. The level of sick newborns is close to 87 per cent, and 85 per cent are born with asphyxia. We've found high levels of heavy metals, like manganese, lead, strontium and other elements in the placenta and in the blood. Our region uses massive doses of pesticides. In Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan) alone, we have used, over the last 13 years, 72 kg of pesticides per hectare.
Every ninth newborn has dysfunctional thyroid, which means brain damage. Many illnesses, for example, brain damage, genetic diseases, and endocrinological diseases cannot even be diagnosed due to our poor diagnostic facilities.
How do your scientific colleagues in Uzbekistan or abroad react to your statement that anaernia is related to environmental pollution and not diet?
This finding is very new for us. I got the results 4 months ago only. Some feel our problems of anaemia are diet-related. It may be partly true today, because after the fall of the Soviet Union economic conditions have worsned, and our women are not getting the necessary diet. But the problem is largely the result of exposure to toxic substances over many decades. I think we have changed the eco" the human organism; we have changed i human body. For example, women 4 anaemia usually have smaller babies. Now, have the opposite thing. We have big babies.
But in that case, why is anaernia mainly getting precipitated in women and riot men?
We have not measured the levels of globin in men. But we will find the because in children we have the same anaernia in girls and boys. Severe anaernia course, significantly higher in poor won though women with good dietary Imbics suffer from anaemia.
Have you been in touch with scientists studying the problems around the Great Lakes in America? They have found that toxin build-up leads not just to cancer but also affects the reproductive system, and lowered sperm counts have been noticed worldwide?
I have heard about that- My research here too has shown a very unusual situation: Have very placenta and very big babies. I think impacts differ, depending on the due of orposure to toxins. The human ohm in chronic, ecologically extreme situtions a will! usually witness non-specific reactions LAN die CIPOSUTC to radiation, chemicals, onmental haors and others, should lead anuesensitive reaction by the immune system bilood system and the endocrine system. r we the systems which react first. This we will then lead to engendering reproductive ductive risks and pathology of reproductive health. My research shows similar results as those of(Chemobyl, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This is both amazing and extremely depressing. What is your plan for making up problem known more widely and solve them?
It is very difficult question. If I say that we Have a lowered immune system, and therefore We must raise it by an immune modulator, it ous work. That kind of correction will ner dw rate of miscarriages, Our women here a lowered immune system because bave poor health. Besides, we also have severe disorders of thyroid and anaerma. I my as a scientist that it is necessary to mer in Karakalpakstan all the possible mdutances in the organism. I am sure that in our body, in breast milk, for examination of dioxin, pesticides and other Toxic substances. It is necessary to find them and then make recommendations for detoxifidation rehabilitation of health, and other such recommendation.
How has the economy changed with the See crisis? Is it that the f isherfolk have emir Ill"ihoods or that their agricultural loadis haw collapsed?
Yes in Muynak the fisherfolk lost their livelihood- Most people migrated. But, for r people. this is an environmental problem We now have more dust storms, worse ft Matti, food is contaminated by pesticides L Ibis dust from the Aral Sea floor constant toxic substances. They can enter the respiretory lipsysam They have led to ulcers, tuberculosis MW other diseases. The trees live only for a Em years and die because our underground water is also very saline.
You are a scientist and yet, you have formed an NGO. NGCs are a new phenomenon in your society. Why did you form this NGO? How do you see NGCs I unctioning Within the newly-formed states after the Break up of the Soviet Union?
It has taken us a long time to form the NGO. After clear the Tashkent Medical School as An obstetrician and gynaecologist, I felt com- to specialise. I got a scholarship and Id in surgical gynaecology. After 2 years, I returned to Karakalpakstan and worked in a region near Muynak. I then felt that to bring about any genuine improvement it was necessary to be a scientist. At that time we didn't have any scientist in Karakalpakstan, nor any scientific institution. Later, I did my Ph.D in infertility problems from the Russian Maternal and Child Health Institute.
By the time I came back here in 1997, the situation had worsened. Most of our women were ill. So I left mywork inthe field of infertility, in which I was very good. I started my new research in 1989. Our research institute was regulated by the government of Uzbekistan. Tashkent would have to clear each project, and it would take years. Then, at that time, I heard that many countries have NGOS. 1, therefore, established My NGO, the Karakalpakstan Centre on Human Reproduction and Family Planning, for my work on family planning and women's issues. We started with sociological research. We interviewed about 2,000 parents on the formation of a family, It was very interesting. We discovered that many of our women do not know about family planning issues.
Now do you collaborate with NGC1s from other parts of Uzbekistan and the world?
I think we have the same aims and goals as any government organisation. So we have to work very closely with governmental organisations, and also with other NGOS with the same aims. We have to define our specific roles in the solution of our problems. It is also very necessary for us to collaborate with international organisations and NGOS from other countries.
I will be very glad to collaborate and enter into joint projects with Indian NGOS. In Our planet, it is not necessary to distinguish people between countries or nations. I think we should only differentiate between men, children and women. For example, if we have the Aral Sea problem here, it means that the world has a sick part in its total organism. So we have to work together.
Does the government support you in the formation of an NGO?
No. For example, the ministry of health considers us as a concurrent. I don't know why. But they do not usually help.
Concurrent in the sense of being in competition with them?
Yes, I think they do look upon us as a competitor. I doD't know how to solve this problem. Now, we work only with the support of some us organizations - we have two grants, one of them is for an educational programme.
This programme on ecology for teenaged school children includes 8 lessons and 4 kinds of brochures for children. The second project is for research on reproductive health dealing with the usage of intrauterine devices (IUDS).
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