Dozens of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange on Thursday embarked on a controversial detoxification treatment plan developed by the Church of Scientology, a Hanoi hospital director said.
U.S. aircraft sprayed chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange over vast swathes of jungle during the Vietnam War in an attempt to flush out Viet Cong communist guerrillas by depriving them of tree cover and food.
The 24 people being treated on a trial basis at Hanoi's 103 Hospital have all been living near the central Danang Airbase, a known dioxin "hotspot," and have all tested positive for elevated levels of the highly-toxic compound.
The patients will receive "the Hubbard method" treatment, which consists largely of saunas, exercise and vitamins, said Hoang Manh An, director of the 103 Hospital where the month-long treatment program is being undertaken.
"The Hubbard method... has not yet been used for the cleansing of dioxin. We want to confirm the value of this method in cleansing dioxin infection," he told AFP late Thursday, adding he believed it would be effective, especially as there is no other way to treat dioxin exposure.
Hanoi says up to 3 million Vietnamese people were exposed to dioxin from Agent Orange, and that one million suffer grave health repercussions today, including at least 150,000 children born with birth defects.
The Danang airbase was a key site in the US defoliant program during the Vietnam War — where much of the 21 million gallons of Agent Orange used during "Operation Ranch Hand" was mixed, stored and loaded onto planes.
Last month, the U.S. and Vietnam began the first ever joint clean up of the area.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said America was not providing any funding for the program and did not endorse the method.
"We are not aware of any safe, effective detoxification treatment for people with dioxin in body tissues," U.S. Embassy spokesman Christopher Hodges told AFP.
"The best way to reduce health risks associated with dioxin is to prevent human exposure to dioxin, and the best way to do that is to clean up areas where dioxin exists in the environment at potentially hazardous levels."
Founded in 1954 by late U.S. science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology is recognised as a religion in the United States. It claims a worldwide membership of 12 million.
But it has long been controversial, notably in Europe. In France it was convicted of fraud in 2009 and fined hundreds of thousands of euros for fleecing vulnerable followers. The conviction was upheld this year.
While the patients were receiving treatment for free, it was unclear whether the hospital or the Church was funding the treatment.