Neglected inheritors of a toxic legacy

 

The extent of the genetic damage caused by radiation can be seen in the suffering of children throughout the region, writes Kathy Sheridan in Chernobyl, in the second of a three-part series

Vyacheslav Klimovich is the director of what Belarussians call a "children's mental asylum", a place that, to many volunteers working for Adi Roche's Chernobyl charity, resonates with both horror and triumph. The radical renovation work, teacher training and modern equipment funded by the Children of Chernobyl Project International (CCPI) are slowly turning Vesnovo into a bright, enlightened haven. But for The Irish Times, on a tight schedule, it's fair to admit that it is no more than a stop on the long road between Minsk and Chernobyl, and the interview with the director no more than a courtesy call.

Then a casual question elicits the information that the dignified Klimovich was once a physics teacher. He knows enough about what lies in the soil around highly contaminated Vetka, his wife's birthplace, and around Gomel, their subsequent home in southern Belarus, to fear it.

He has a son aged 13, a child with no particular disease, he says slowly, "but he hasn't good health either. He is very weak and gets tired very quickly. He runs temperatures for no reason. We try to give him clean food and vitamins . . ."

Klimovich is so fearful of radiation that the couple have decided not to have a second child.

According to many Belarussian doctors and ordinary families to whom we talk, his description of his son's health and reasons for having an only child could apply to nearly every family in the Gomel region.

Klimovich's case is not dramatic, and his son's unexplained lethargy and temperature spikes will not feature in any statistic. But it's one reason why an eastern European cry of rage greeted last September's Chernobyl Forum report from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). It stated that only 50 deaths could be directly attributed to the disaster, that 4,000 at most would eventually die from it and that the majority of illnesses among the estimated five million contaminated in the former Soviet Union are attributable to growing poverty and unhealthy lifestyles.

Dr Michael Repacholi, manager of the WHO Radiation Programme, is quoted in the summary: "The sum total of the Chernobyl Forum is a reassuring message."

Another series of reports, however, are on the way, according to the Guardian newspaper, which will tell a radically different story. These are also from leading scientists and doctors and take into account 50 published scientific studies in estimates from researchers commissioned by European parliamentary groups, Greenpeace International, and medical foundations in Britain, Germany, Ukraine, Scandinavia and elsewhere.

The forthcoming estimates will suggest that at least 30,000 people are expected to die of cancers linked directly to severe radiation exposure in 1986 and that up to 500,000 may have already died in Ukraine alone. The deputy head of Ukraine's National Commission for Radiation Protection says: "We have found that infant mortality increased 20 to 30 per cent because of chronic exposure after the accident. All this information has been ignored by the IAEA and WHO. We sent it to them in March last year and again in June. They've not said why they haven't accepted it."

The IAEA report has attracted much criticism for its tendency to concentrate on numbers of deaths while virtually ignoring the incidence of morbidity, such as chronic illness and the ongoing suffering of those who have managed to survive life-threatening disease. For example, the report states that nine children have died from thyroid cancer and that 4,000 have been found to be affected, but notes that the survival rate is around 99 per cent. The livid "Belarus necklace", the scar which marks such victims for life, and their lifelong dependence on medication, rates no mention.

AE Okeanov, head of the cancer registry in Belarus for many years and now working at the Clinical Institute of Radiation Medicine and Endocrinology Research in Minsk, published work in the Swiss Medical Weekly in 2004, showing that cancerous "affections" (women undergoing mastectomies, for example) had increased by about 52 per cent in the Gomel region. The rate for the whole of Belarus was up by 40 per cent. His study also showed that the peak incidence rates of breast cancer had shifted to younger women between 45 and 49 years of age.

IN THE RIVNE region of Ukraine, 310 miles west of Chernobyl, doctors are also reporting an unusual rate of cancers and mutations.

"In the 30 hospitals of our region we find that up to 30 per cent of people who were in highly radiated areas have physical disorders, including heart and blood diseases, cancers and respiratory diseases," says Alexander Vewremchuk, of the Special Hospital for the Radiological Protection of the Population in Vilne. "Nearly one in three of all the newborn babies have deformities, mostly internal."

In Belarus, Dr Vyacheslav Izhakovsky, the chief doctor at the Gomel Regional Children's Hospital, which treats 12,000 children a year, says that, factoring in the plummeting birthrate, the hospital has seen the rate of genetic damage in newborns increase by 16 times since 1985.

"We're at a time when women who were aged between one and three in 1986 are giving birth . . . No more than 16 to 17 per cent of all newborn babies are completely healthy," he says. "The cause behind 60 per cent of these is the mother's sickness during pregnancy. Twenty years after Chernobyl, you have to take into consideration radiological problems. I and many doctors believe that 50 per cent of illness is rooted in ecological problems. But we can't prove it because we have no time to do research. I can tell you though, that the problems are only starting . . ."

Dr Irina Kolmanovich, the paediatrician who runs the newborns' intensive care unit, points to several babies with genetic problems. They include eight- month-old Vlad, who was born with damage to his muscle and nervous system. He can still move his legs and hands but no one is prepared to give a prognosis. Vlad lies opposite three-year-old Masha, who was born with a similar condition and mobility, but has been deteriorating steadily during her short life.

Vlad's mother is in the bracket of girls who were aged between one and three in 1986.

"It's all genetic," says Dr Kolmanovich, "You can read it when the damage is ecological."

In Gomel, in particular, people like Vyacheslav Klimovich drew their own conclusions by not risking a second child. Quite apart from a "demographic doomsday" being discussed by some researchers, the result can be unspeakably tragic. Lena Pogorelova, a maths teacher in Gomel, took the "risk" of having a child five years ago. She had always worried about what is called the "Chernobyl effect" and had heard about the low number of healthy newborns. She gave birth to Diana, now aged five, who seemed normal but slowly manifested enough symptoms to fill three handwritten pages, the main ones of which are cerebral palsy, a heart defect, eye problems and anaemia.

Diana is now confined to a special chair, is subject to terrifying convulsions and seizures, and is almost impossible to calm at any time. The only saviours for Pogorelova are her mother-in-law, who acts as carer while Pogorelova goes to work, and the hospice nurses of the CCPI.

Pogorelova's husband, a plasterer, finds work where he can, in a region where jobs are scarce, so Pogorelova's income is vital. But she can hardly find a minute even to prepare her lessons.

Diana remains the Pogorelovas' only child. Her mother sees no hope, no future.

She will not attribute Diana's condition to Chernobyl. She blames herself for being an "old" mother (35 when Diana was born). But she does believe that there is a sickness in the population. Many of her female teaching colleagues have unexplained spinal problems, for example. Sheobserves that children are much "weaker" now than before, that they get tired far more easily and that even psychologically there are changes.

"Radiation doesn't only affect the liver," she says."It affects different systems in the body and changes them, and we never know where it's going to strike."

THE OTHER CATEGORY which rails against the IAEA's Chernobyl Forum report is the "liquidators", the 600,000 heroes of the Soviet Union who battled the radioactive inferno in 1986, working in radioactive hot spots, clearing up the debris around the plant, disposing of vehicles, suppressing dust, demolishing villages and controlling the populations.

The forum summary asserts that "as of mid-2005, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004".

Contrast this with what the deputy head of the National Commission for Radiation Protection in Ukraine told the Guardian: "[ Studies show] that 34,449 people who took part in the clean-up of Chernobyl have died in the years since the catastrophe. The deaths of these people from cancers was nearly three times as high as in the rest of the population."

Few dismiss out of the hand the forum's assertion that some illnesses in the population are attributable to growing poverty and unhealthy lifestyles or that under-reporting in previous years might be a factor in percentage increases.

"Of course there is some truth in this," says Dr Izhakovsky of Gomel Regional Children's Hospital. "We accept there has been a certain percentage of under-reporting but believe it is minor. And of course we have social problems now. But there is no huge gap between living conditions then and now, other than a small percentage.

"The disaster was a difficult situation for any republic, although Belarus was left facing all the problems and hadn't enough money. You can say it's just a socio-economic problem, but on the other hand we didn't have the money to deal with it. Go to Vetka and see what people are eating there, where radiation is three times higher than it should be. Traditionally, Belarussians go to the woods for food, and that food is not being checked for radiation. Fifty per cent of all the effects are environmental - you cannot get away from that."

"WHERE DID THE IAEA do its research?" he adds angrily, pointing out that no one consulted him, although he has been a doctor here since 1982. "Why don't they do some real research work?"

He castigates those responsible for keeping the people in ignorance in 1986, for not evacuating people quickly enough, for failing to give out iodine. The politicians thought they were gods, he says, but they couldn't "influence the chemical processes". And as for the academics who helped to hide information at the time and are now handing it over when it's too late: "Where were you back then?"