Vietnam's victims of Agent Orange turn to Scientology for help
Controversial detox treatment offered free to families affected by US toxic dioxin
It's been offered as a veritable miracle cure to New York firemen whose health was wrecked while walking among the dust and debris of 9/11, thanks to personal funding from Tom Cruise.
Now a social welfare group backed by the Church of Scientology has opened its controversial detoxification programme to another group desperate to try anything to restore their wellbeing: Vietnam's four million victims of Agent Orange.
The Purification Rundown has been made available to residents of Hanoi whose lives are still affected by exposure to the toxic dioxin contained in the 75 million litres of the defoliant dropped by US forces during the Vietnam War.
The project is run by a Scientology offshoot, the Association for Better Living and Education, which aims to "rid the world" of "drugs, crime, illiteracy and immorality" through the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard.
The clinical benefits of the treatment are contentious, to say the least. Yet with symptoms of exposure to Agent Orange including birth defects and cancer, dozens of applicants have decided the chance of free medical help cannot be passed up.
Dau Xuan Tuong, an official at the Vietnam Association of Agent Orange Victims, told Associated Press that 24 people were treated with using the so-called Hubbard Method at a military hospital in Hanoi for a month, after 22 were treated in the northern Thai Binh province last year.
"Their health has improved after the treatment, and some saw their chronic illnesses disappear," he said. However, Dau also admitted: "We need to do more scientific research to determine its impact."
This uncertainty has done little to put off would-be patients such as Nguyen Dai Sang. "I hope my wife and I will fully recover completely and will not suffer after-effects to pass on to my descendants," he told Viet Nam News.
According to the church the treatment involves "a carefully designed combination of exercise, vitamins, nutrition and sauna use which dislodges drug residues and other toxins from the fatty tissues so that these substances can then be eliminated from the body".
The Hubbard Method has been around for a some years, but it was the sight of Cruise holding his fist aloft in promotional photos for the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Project in 2002 that brought it renewed attention – and claims that it was nothing but "quackery".
Dr Ronald Gots is among the toxicology experts to have dismissed the treatment, writing that "no recognised body of toxicologists, no department of occupational medicine, nor any governmental agencies endorse or recommend such treatment".
Yet the church maintains that "independent researchers acknowledge [the Hubbard Method] as the most effective detoxification program in existence".
The 9/11 project is equally emphatic in outlining the supposed dramatic – if rather stomach-churning – results for the firefighters that have come through its doors.
"Patients have had black paste coming out of their pores in the sauna," says its president on the official website. "Their sweat has stained towels purple, blue, orange, yellow and black. They have reported bowel movements that are blue, or green, or that have smelled like smoke."
The US began its first Agent Orange cleanup operation in Vietnam earlier this year, but a spokesman for the US Embassy said Washington would not consider backing the Scientology project. "We are not aware of any safe, effective detoxification treatment for people with dioxin in body tissues," he said.
The Church of Scientology did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.