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The Shadow of Chernobyl


After 20 years the Chernobyl catastrophe continues to blight lives. Despite cancer rates stabilising, the psychological effects of the disaster have led to the disintegration of many families and children becoming homeless in Belarus.

Recent studies show that sickness due to different cancers among children is slowly dropping and the figure is now comparable to Europe's average (in Europe the rate of sickness is 13 cases per 100,000 children aged 0 to 14; in Belarus the figure is 15 per 100,000). This is of course very encouraging but the real problem lies elsewhere; soon those people who were children at the time of the catastrophe will be settling down to start their own families.

The Belarus Radiation Medicine Institute has warned: "We are now seeing genetic changes, especially among those who were less than six years of age when the accident happened and were subjected to radiation. These people are now starting families."

Professor Vasily Nesterenko of the Institute of Radiation Safety, Belrad, says that when people were resettled, not everything went well. Men tended not to cope well with the mental effects of the catastrophe and began to drink, which in turn led to the break up of families. Many children were placed in orphanages.

Uncertainty and depression

A "victim" mentality has occurred in the affected area due to severe restrictions on activities, making life difficult and unsettling on top of the uncertainty about the extent to which each person's own health continued to be at risk.

Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, has said that at least three million children in Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian Federation require physical treatment due to the Chernobyl accident: "Not until 2016, at the earliest, will we know the full number of those likely to develop serious medical conditions."

The end of the Soviet Union meant the collapse of a state whose welfare system had provided security for many. In their latest report, The Human Consequences of the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident, UNDP and UNICEF suggest that people feel they are victims of developments over which they have no influence. They have little confidence in their own ability to improve their situation.

The catastrophe continues - and is far from being over. The direct damage caused by radiation and the equally significant indirect economic, social, medical and ecological consequences continue to affect millions of people.

Another flow of orphans

Professor Nesterenko of Belrad draws attention to the fact that these sick people cannot have healthy children. The economic and psychological atmosphere in Belarus may cause another flow of orphans.

"Ninety per cent of children were healthy in 1985. Now, only 20% are; this is according to the official statistics. I was in the Narovlya district myself and checked 3,800 children - I found no healthy kids," he recalls.

"We have tens of thousands of youngsters who have damaged immune systems and who suffer from different diseases because of Chernobyl. This will be part of our lives for many years. It takes a minimum of 30-40 years for nature to renew itself - if nature is contaminated then its products will be contaminated, which means more diseases for the people and more troubles for children."

Worst catastrophe

Belarus was the country most severely affected by the nuclear reactor disaster at Chernobyl. Twenty-three per cent of its territory is contaminated. At the time of the accident, 2.2 million people lived in this area. In early 1996, 1.84 million people, including almost 500,000 children, still lived in the contaminated territories. Today, 1.5 million continue to live there.

The fallout from the disaster has directly affected over nine million people in Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia. The inhabitants of these countries were exposed to radioactivity 90-times higher than that released by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The UN has declared the disaster the worst environmental catastrophe in history.

Relevant Countries: Belarus.

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