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20 years on

Everyone 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 reporting delegate.

A guard passes the concrete sarcophagus covering the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant which exploded two decades ago.
©REUTERS / Gleb Garanich, Courtesy

A Ukrainian woman lights a candle in memory of firemen who died fighting the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant during a service in Slavutich, Ukraine at commemorations in April 2005. Ukraine marks the anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear tragedy when Chernobyl’s reactor number four blew up, sending radioactive clouds in the air, poisoning vast areas in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, and contaminating much of Europe.
©REUTERS / Gleb Garanich, Courtesy

Elderly women gather around a truck to receive food supplies from Ukraine’s emergencies ministry in Ilintsy, a village within the 30-kilometre exclusion zone around the closed Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The ministry organized a delivery of basic goods for the 340 mainly poor and elderly people still living in the zone.
©REUTERS / Ivan Chernichkin, Courtesy

Anatoly Maestrovich was 29 at the time of the disaster. Years later, the Ukrainian sought medical help when he felt dizzy and his heart was racing. That was when the mobile laboratory noticed his thyroid problem. “They worked on me for a long time, sometimes 16 or 17 hours a day but I survived. I was lucky. Many of my generation died.”
©Luke Tchalenko / International Federation

One of the most positive features of the International Federation’s CHARP programme is that it reaches places where the local authorities have few facilities. As such, it provides vital moral support. The mobile diagnostic laboratory has come to the tiny Russian village of Medvedovo, some 140 kilometres from Chernobyl, but right in the middle of the path taken by the radiation cloud. The clinic, in the village health centre, is busy with people of all ages. “We screen children as well if the parents ask,” says mobile diagnostic laboratory head Victoria Hotsakova.
©Luke Tchalenko / International Federation

Children at the village school in Narodichni, Ukraine, are among the 24,000 children living in highly contaminated areas who receive multivitamins containing C, D and B group with iron, folic acid and stable iodine from the Red Cross. This gives their immune systems a vital boost, especially in winter. Over the 15 years of the programme’s existence, Red Cross workers have distributed 122 million vitamin tablets to children in the affected areas.
©Luke Tchalenko / International Federation


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