Declining environment hurt Vietnamese

Tran Dinh Thanh Lam

The decline in Vietnam’s rich biodiversity is hurting not just the environment but its uses for human health, such as in the treatment of burns — a field where the country’s scientists have done pioneering work in. Dr Le The Trung, who pioneered the use of frog skin in treating burn victims, worries that the declining state of the environment has already led to a scarcity of such skin. In a sign of greater international acceptance of Trung’s appro-ach, a group of 45 British doctors and scientists visited Vietnam last year to learn the trea-tment technique from him. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people in Vietnam are injured by fires each year. Of the many who suffer third-degree burns, half die because no human skin is available for grafting. Frog skin has been used widely and effectively to treat victims with less severe injuries. But this material is in short supply since its source, the local amphibian population, is at risk as loggers, shrimp farmers and industrial polluters exploit large areas of the nation’s 11-million-hectare forest cover. Population growth also adds to the toll. Tropical mangrove forests, a prime habitat of frogs, are threatened as local communities exploit marine resources and industries freely dump toxic waste into the environment.

Vietnam has lost at least 220,000 hectares of mangrove forests since 1943, and the 175,000 hectares that remain today are threatened by environmental abuses, campaigners say. Thousands of hectares of mangroves in the southern province of Soc Tra-ng, for instance, are threatened by aquaculture development. Before 1990, there were nearly 3,000 hectares of mangroves at the mouths of three rivers, and the area formed the habitat and breeding ground for fish, crustaceans and amphibians. Frogs taken from this area alone could meet the demands of medical laboratories in southern Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong River Delta. But the biodiversity-rich mangrove forests were also a prime location for raising giant tiger prawns. Farmers rushed in to join the boom and, using advanced farming techniques, turned vast areas of mangroves into prawn ponds. This threw the local ecosystem into crisis. In the northern seaport of Hai Phong, environmentalists have strongly criticised Ha Long Fisheries Co, which has cleared vast areas of swamps and mangrove forests and replaced them with shrimp farms.

The decline in the frog population is exacerbated by pollution in Vietnam’s waterways. In the Mekong Delta, about 10,000 cubic metres of household waste and another 20,000 cubic metres of industrial waste are dumped into the Ca Mau River and its tributaries everyday. These waterways have become brackish and aquatic life can hardly be seen. Trung began developing this burn treatment technique after returning to Vietnam from the former Soviet Union, where he received training in the treatment of burns in 1961. At the time, he heard about the use of frog skin to treat wounds, and remembered that Vietnamese in the countryside also used frog flesh for treating wounds, except that they usually failed to get rid of intestinal flat worms that lay under the skin. In May 1965, Trung had his first success in grafting skin from frogs onto a 24-year-old girl suffering from burns. By 1994, before the method received global airing through international workshops, he had treated 159 burn cases using this method. Trung now looks forward to the establishment of the first human skin bank in Vietnam, a need that for him has become imperative. ‘’The disappearance of frogs has only made the need more urgent,’’ he said. — IPS