North Vietnamese army veteran Nguyen Anh Quoc grimaces as he forces down the last of the 35 vitamins he takes each morning. After decades of suffering from illnesses he believes were caused by exposure to Agent Orange, he is putting his faith in a regime advocated by the Church of Scientology.
«I have to take them,» the 62-year-old said at a treatment center established with the help of a Scientology-funded group. «They will clean up my body.»
The center, a converted mushroom farm in northern Vietnam, owes as much to Scientology’s desire to expand around the world, away from scandal in the United States, as it does to pressure in Vietnam to try to help aging veterans still suffering from the effects of war.
Many medical experts regard the treatment — a 25-day vitamin and sauna regime — as junk medicine or even dangerous. But for now at least, it has found fertile ground here.
The Vietnamese advocacy group overseeing the program in Thai Binh province wants to offer it to all 20,000 people suffering from ailments blamed on dioxins in Agent Orange. U.S. airplanes sprayed up to 12 million gallons of the defoliant over the country during the Vietnam War to strip away vegetation used as cover by Vietnamese soldiers.
The advocacy group, which has the implicit support of the government, has almost completed a two-story accommodation block for patients and is raising funds for a much larger complex, with 15 more saunas than the five it currently has.
«I have seen so many desperate families that their tears have dried up,» said Nguyen Duc Hanh, the head of local branch of the Vietnam Association of Agent Orange Victims in Thai Binh. «I don’t know what the scientists say about its effectiveness, but the patients say it improves their health. They should be able to experience it before they die.»
Scientologists believe the regime, which includes massive consumption of vitamins, four-hour sauna sessions and morning runs, can «sweat out» toxins stored in body fat. There are no peer-reviewed studies to back this claim.
The center was established in 2010 by five foreign members of a Scientology-funded sister organization, The Association of Better Living and Education. They gave local staff two months of training. The group is devoted to spreading church founder L. Ron Hubbard’s social welfare programs and health treatments around the world.
The center makes no reference to its links to the church, and the volunteers have long departed. But having its «Purification Rundown» treatment accepted by authorities here adds legitimacy to it, and gives the church a foothold from which to grow.
The church sent volunteers to Asia to administer another of its treatments, a massage called a «touch assist,» in the aftermath of disasters including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 2008 Myanmar cyclone.
Since its emergence in the 1950s, Scientology has battled accusations, legal challenges and government scrutiny around the world over accusations it is a secretive cult that preys on vulnerable people. Its leaders deny those accusations.
Scientologists market the «rundown» treatment simultaneously as a spiritual treatment for followers and as a secular one for those needing «detox,» either from drug addiction or chemical exposure. Two affiliated Scientology groups use the treatment in drug rehabilitation centers that have drawn wrongful death lawsuits and investigations.
In 1991, Scientology offered «rundown» treatments in Russia to people suffering symptoms related to radiation exposure following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. The church still refers to the mission in its online literature, claiming numerous successes, but Russia banned it from performing medical treatment in the country in 1996.
Last year, a French court upheld fraud charges and fined the church $791,000 for its efforts to persuade people to take the «rundown.»
Rubina Qureshi, vice president of ABLE International, said the detox has helped thousands of people exposed to chemical contamination, alleviating symptoms such as sleep difficulties, memory problems, pain and mood swings.
«Whatever the long-term health status of these individuals may be, reducing symptoms that have persisted for decades can have profoundly beneficial effects and this is a worthwhile goal in itself,» Qureshi said via email.
The Thai Binh province group said it selects patients based on the severity of their symptoms, and that about 600 people have gone through the course.
Fourteen days into the program, Quoc, who suffers from diabetes, nervous system complaints and memory loss, said he was sleeping better, has a better appetite and felt better overall. A reporter questioned four other patients, all of whom made similar statements.
All patients get daily care and attention from nurses, as well as pulse and blood pressure checks by doctors. Those who live outside of town also receive food and board during the course.
«It is an excellent program. I feel my health is much improved,» said Quoc, who spent much of the war fighting along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was heavily sprayed with Agent Orange.
It is unclear if those feelings of better health endure. Hanh said it was too expensive to monitor patients once they leave the center.
Many people exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam can’t work, or have family members that need full-time care. The Vietnamese government provides them a stipend of between $50 and $90 a month, but there are few residential centers for people with severe disabilities.
None of those taking the course when an Associated Press reporting team visited recently appeared to be suffering from life-threatening or debilitating illnesses. All were able to comfortably jog slowly for half an hour.
Pham Ngoc Tan, a 29-year-old patient, said he was on the course after his father offered his place to him. He said he needed it because he and his wife had been having trouble conceiving.
In the U.S., the Board on the Health of Select Populations, part of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, said in 2010 that there is an association between herbicide exposure and some forms of cancer, including Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It said there was more limited evidence of possible associations with several other diseases.
Washington has for years questioned whether Agent Orange is responsible for sickening Americans or Vietnamese, though it has spent billions on health care and other programs for U.S. veterans who were exposed. It denies any legal liability in Vietnam.
While it gives money to Vietnamese health and disability programs in general, it ignores Vietnamese requests for compensation or direct assistance to victims, saying all help is «regardless of cause.»
Vietnam attributes more illness and conditions to exposure then America does, including, for example, reproductive abnormalities and congenital deformities. Very few people in Vietnam have been tested for levels of dioxins.
Hanh says the treatment costs around $350 per person, which the victims association pays for. It gets some funds from individual donors, both at home and abroad, and Vietnamese companies, often state-run ones. The center’s expansion is being financed by a joint venture company owned by state-owned PetroVietnam and a Russian company.
Last year, the military began a second «rundown» course at a military hospital in the capital, Hanoi, according to the head of the national victims support group, Nguyen Van Rinh. Blood samples taken from patients before and after the treatment are being sent to Germany, where a lab has been contracted to check whether dioxin levels have changed, he said. The hospital declined to answer questions about the program.
Many medical experts are troubled by the large amount of vitamins «rundown» patients are instructed to take, especially niacin, which far exceed the daily recommended doses by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA warns that taking too much niacin can lead to «liver problems, gout, ulcers of the digestive tract, loss of vision, high blood sugar, irregular heartbeat, and other serious problems.»
«It’s bad enough that the treatment is ineffective … and that people’s expectations get raised. Another thing that it is a potentially dangerous undertaking,» said Stephen Kent, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta in Canada who has studied Scientology.
Still, patients including Nguyen Thi Be are hopeful. She worked along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, repairing bridges and roads damaged by U.S. bombs. Since the war ended, she has suffered two miscarriages, has a daughter diagnosed with Down syndrome and suffers from uterine fibroids, cysts and other ailments.
«The veterans here may look not very ill, but many of us are rotten from inside with illnesses,» she said, her face red after emerging from a sauna session. «After 13 days, I haven’t seen a drastic improvement but I think I will be better with time. Other people who have finished the treatment highly recommended it. They looked very healthy when I saw them.»