In July, a group of Hong Kong students travelled to Vietnam, on a Unicef Young Envoy programme, to see what some children deal with.
They visited Kon Tum Social Protection Centre, which is home to 150 residents – 65 orphans and 85 children with disabilities.
Some of their health problems have been caused by Agent Orange, a herbicide the United States military sprayed across the country during the Vietnam War. It was intended to kill plants and trees in the dense forests, and deny Vietnamese guerilla forces places from which to attack US troops.
From 1962 to 1971, about 80 million litres of Agent Orange and other herbicides destroyed two million hectares of Vietnam’s forest.
Yet Agent Orange had terrible side-effects on people. It contained deadly dioxins that cause cancer, birth defects and skin diseases. Both Vietnamese, living in sprayed areas, and American workers, who handled the herbicide, were harmed.
Today, more than 40 years later, illnesses caused by the chemical are still seen, passed down through generations, and traces of dioxin are still found in the soil and in animals.
In August, the US and Vietnam announced the launch of a four-year, US$43 million clean-up project to remove traces of the chemical.
It is clear which residents at the protection centre were affected by Agent Orange; they show symptoms linked with the herbicide, such as mental and physical disability.
Pham Chau Tue, director of the centre, said Kon Tum was the first province to be affected by Agent Orange, leading to many abnormalities. An 11-year-old boy, known only as Ahome, wears a diaper and lays in bed all day as his legs are so deformed they can’t support his body’s weight. He responds when his name is called, but can utter only a few grunts.
Doan Thi Nga, 42, who’s lived at the centre for five years, suffers from dwarfism. She earns a living by making fishing nets by hand and teaches the skill to others.
Besides providing a home and rehabilitation, the centre teaches residents skills such as making nets and brooms to help them find work in the future.
Pham said the biggest danger from Agent Orange was its ability to cause DNA damage for generations – a fact confirmed by Dr Michael Lam Hon-wah, associate professor of the department of biology and chemistry at the City University of Hong Kong.
Lam said: “If 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D [compounds forming Agent Orange] enter the body, they will pass through the kidneys and severely damage them. In testing, when we see an animal who suffers kidney problems because of those chemicals, we find a higher number of birth defects, mental retardation, and mortalities among its newly born offspring.”
Visiting the centre left a lasting impact on the students – even reducing some of them to tears.
Felix Tam Chun-yan, a Form Four student at Queen’s College, in Causeway Bay, helped one child walk the length of a rehabilitation room using a walking frame. “People here face so many problems, like the boy with his leg deformity, yet keep fighting to reach their goals,” he said. “He wanted to make it to the other side of the room and continued to walk even without anyone’s help. I am in awe of him.”
The Unicef Young Envoy programme is recruiting for 2013. For details, go to www.unicef.org.hk/unicefye2013. The deadline for applications is November 1.
Felix Tam Chun-yan helps a disabled child use a walking frame.