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10 The Children of Chernobyl 25,000 Treated While many other countries, rich countries, have shown pity, Cuba has shown its solidarity, helping to increase health and save thousands of children and young Ukrainians. Leonid Kuchma, former president of Ukraine, 2010 The Nuclear Meltdown On April 26, 1986, an explosion occurred at the Number 4 reactor at the nuclear power plant of Chernobyl in Ukraine, some 80 miles northwest of the city of Kiev. This led to a steam explosion and fire, resulting in the meltdown of the reactor and a huge release of radioactive material into the atmosphere. The temperature rose to 2,500 degrees, melting everything nearby, and a cloud of radioactive dust spread. Radioactive pollution was released, 500 times the amount resulting from the atomic bomb in Hiroshima . While many countries in northern Europe experienced the fallout from the explosion, those most affected were 2 million in Belarus, 3.5 million in the Russian Federation, and 2.7 million in Ukraine.1 So immense was the impact on the surrounding area that 350,000 people from all over the former Soviet Union came to help. Given the potential for massive health problems, the nearby town of Pripyat (pop. 45,000) was immediately evacuated, and within three weeks 116,000 people living within a 30-mile radius were relocated. A further 220,000 were subsequently resettled , and local authorities increased the initial exclusion zone to incorporate 4,300 square kilometers.2 In all, 8.4 million people were exposed to abnormally high levels of radiation. Approximately 150,000 square kilometers were contaminated, and 52,000 square kilometers of agricultural land were ruined.3 The average life span of Cesium 137 (a radioactive isotope) is between 20 and 50 years, and so it will take decades for the area to return to normal—so great was the nuclear tragedy. The Children of Chernobyl: 25,000 Treated · 237 The impact on the health of the surrounding population was immediate and devastating. Between 1987 and 2004 half a million people died in the Ukraine, with 2.3 million suffering health problems, including 500,000 children.4 Life expectancy plummeted to just over 50 years for men in surrounding towns, and cancer rates soared. Ionizing radiation has resulted in significant increases of leukemia among those most heavily exposed to the radiation. There has also been a rise in the number of people with cataracts and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Of particular concern to medical officials was the large number of children with thyroid cancer, the result of drinking milk that had been contaminated with radioactive iodine (which had settled in pastureland). Indeed, 5,000 cases of thyroid cancer have been diagnosed in children who were under 18 at the time of the nuclear accident. To place this in context, this represents a 30-fold increase in thyroid cancer. Other radioactive nuclides found in the environment are cesium, strontium, and plutonium, all of which have had major impacts on health. The World Health Organization concluded that an additional 4,000 cancer deaths were to be expected.5 This does not take into account the many other long-term medical problems also caused by radiation. The impact on mental health was also great, given the stress about health problems, relocation (and destruction in many cases of traditional family and friendship ties), unemployment, and feelings of frustration and sorrow. This was, of course, taking place just as the Soviet Union was starting to collapse, resulting in mass confusion and uncertainty about the future. Yet there are limited data on such unseen mental health concerns.6 Perhaps most troubling is the fact that nowadays some 270,000 people still live in areas with high radioactive levels, clearly an unhealthy situation. On April 26, 2012, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon summarized the extent of the disaster, remembering “the more than 330,000 people who were evacuated from surrounding areas with little hope of return; the thousands of children who later contracted thyroid cancer; and the six million still living in the affected areas of Belarus, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine.”7 Put simply, this nuclear disaster was the greatest since the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in World War II, and its impact will be felt for decades. The International Response to Chernobyl The gravity of the Chernobyl accident was clear, and the government immediately appealed for international support. Until the fall of the Soviet 238 · Healthcare without Borders Union, the most significant support...


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