knows about Chernobyl. We all remember the day in April 1986
when the power plant’s fourth reactor exploded. In the
world’s worst nuclear accident, radioactive material
was released into the environment and polluted large parts
of Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation. The disaster
affected nearly 7 million people in the 3 countries and claimed
more than 4,000 lives. It is believed that some 3 million
people suffer from the after-effects.
Every year, survivors remember the
tragedy by lighting candles, saying prayers and remembering
loved ones. 26 April 2006 will mark 20 years since the disaster.
Two decades on, a vast swathe of fertile agricultural land
in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine still lies
contaminated. Many people continue to live on land where radiation
levels are far higher than normal. Although the consequences
to human health continue to be studied, it is widely recognized
that, in the contaminated region, rates of thyroid cancer,
the only pathology directly attributed to the disaster, are
dozens of times higher than normal.
Through its Chernobyl Humanitarian
Assistance and Rehabilitation Programme (CHARP), the International
Federation, together with the Red Cross Societies of Belarus,
the Russian Federation and Ukraine, screen 90,000 people a
year for signs of thyroid cancer. The aim is to identify problems
at the earliest possible stage among people in the most remote
areas, where state health authorities have little if any capacity.
The work is carried out by six mobile diagnostic laboratories,
three in Belarus, two in Ukraine and one in the Russian Federation.
The laboratories screen people who fall into high-risk groups;
they also provide psychological support.
Even people very familiar with the
Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement might be surprised to
learn that this is the International Federation’s longest-running
humanitarian programme. It is an attempt to bridge the health-care
gap in these poor, rural communities.
The International Federation makes
things better. Where it intervenes, people regain their coping
mechanisms and life improves. But with Chernobyl, the rules
bend. Thousands of people exposed to radiation in 1986 are
still waiting to be screened, many of these people have enlarged
glands that may yet become cancerous. Scientists continue
to study the effects of the Chernobyl disaster, seeking evidence
of conditions that today are evident, but unproven.
Recently, funds to support the programme
have come from the Red Cross Societies of Austria, Japan and
the Netherlands, as well as from the British and the Irish
governments. However, interest from donors for this unique
International Federation programme has declined, just as cancer
rates are set to spike.
Meanwhile, the programme continues
to improve its early detection capabilities. For example,
the Brest mobile diagnostic laboratory in western Belarus
can now conduct immediate fine-needle biopsies in the field
on suspected cases of thyroid cancer, giving a reliable and
rapid diagnosis — essential if lives are to be saved.
Joe Lowry is International Federation information and