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Environment

Chernobyl disaster continues to haunt Ukrainians 25 years on

Millions of people were affected physically and mentally by the reactor explosion in Chernobyl 25 years ago. Tens of thousands of people are estimated to still live in contaminated areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

This 1986 aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, shows damage from an explosion and fire in reactor four on April 26, 1986

On April 26th, 1986, reactor number four at Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded

Heavy machines are building a new sarcophagus at Chernobyl reactor number four. It will cost 800 million euros and will replace the one which was built in haste after the explosion of April 26th, 1986.

The fourth power bloc of the Chernobyl nuclear power station sits idle in Chernobyl

The sarcophagus which was hastily built after the disaster is being replaced

It won't be finished for several years, which means the people living and working in the areas nearby will continue to be exposed to occasional radiation leaks.

Borodianka, for instance, lies 100 kilometers away. In the days after the blast, more than one-hundred thousand people were relocated here. To this day there are still dangers in consuming some berries from the local forests, as well as wild mushrooms and fish from contaminated nearby rivers. Some of the contamination dates back to the original blast, but the more recent leaks are also to blame.

"There isn't a single family who I know today who wouldn't link their illnesses to the catastrophe," says Ludmila Boyko, Director of the town's Psycho-Social Rehabilitation Center.

Rise in thyroid and other cancer rates

In Borodianka, there are new cases of cancer and other diseases reported all the time, particularly amongst children. "From year to year there are more cases," says Ludmila Boyko, "according to the state's statistics, 75 percent of school children have chronic diseases."

Secrecy and suspicion still dominate official circles in Ukraine, which makes it difficult to get an accurate picture of the types of illnesses that are prevalent now in post-Chernobyl Ukraine. Joint research with Japan found that thyroid cancer cases in the country increased tenfold in the ten years after the accident.

Up-to-date statistics are hard to find. But social workers at the Borodianka rehabilitation center have heard of many strange cases in their region - including reports of cancer of the bones in children, of cancer in the lacteal gland in the breast.

Based on Japan's World War Two experience in Hiroshima, doctors are anticipating a peak in reports of thyroid cancer cases this year in Ukraine, the 25th year after the blast. Already, researchers at the Institute of Paediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Kiev, are noticing a rise.

"Yes, we are approaching the peak of the bad influence of ionizing radiation because we can see the increase of the thyroid gland cancer cases starting in pregnancy," says researcher Alexandra Makryk, "and now we can see that the number of women operated on during their pregnancy is increasing."

Poor health system

One of the main problems in identifying and dealing with Chernobyl-related health problems is the state of Ukraine's healthcare system. It is still run on a Soviet-era model and ranks as one of the worst in the region.

Memorial at reactor number four. The main chimney of Chernobyl Reactor Number Four and the faulty sarcophagus are visible in the background.

The memorial at the Chernobyl plant is dedicated to the workers

The Economist Intelligence Unit in 2010 found that Ukrainians suffer from twice as much cardiovascular disease as their counterparts in the European Union. HIV/AIDS is five times more prevalent. Adult mortality is two and a half times that of Europe, while child mortality rates are double.

"It's a lack of medicine, a lack of equipment, a lack of diagnostic equipment or if they have diagnostic equipment, then it's a lack of re-agents that are needed in order to run the diagnostic equipment," says Alexa Milantych from the Children of Chernobyl Relief Development Fund.

The CCRDF was started by Ukrainian expatriates in the US more than twenty years ago. It has provided specialist equipment to treat babies in state hospitals worth 45 million euros - including heart monitors, incubators and respirators.

Premature births are an ongoing problem in Ukraine. Since the Chernobyl accident infants also suffer from high levels of birth defects, as well as tumours and malignant illnesses.

Political dysfunction and corruption

The widow of a Chernobyl victim carries a box of photos of men killed in clean-up operations following the Chernobyl explosion, to place them at the monument to Chernobyl victims in Ukraine's capital Kiev

Many Chernobyl victims feel let down by the various Ukrainian governments since the disaster

Chernobyl victims often feel they have been let down by the numerous governments since Ukraine left the Soviet Union in 1991. Until 2004, Ukraine's leaders maintained close ties with Russia and were hesitant to criticise an important ally.

Since the Orange Revolution, there have been a series of dysfunctional and ineffective governments. All of this has meant inconsistent policies in dealing with the Chernobyl aftermath. Successive governments have also failed to get a handle on corruption, which impacts the health sector.

"Any time there is new equipment that is being purchased they (hospitals) have tenders," says Alexa Milantych from the Children of Chernobyl Relief Development Fund based in Kiev, "but unfortunately these tenders are quite corrupt and they end up selecting the least expensive and cheapest equipment that they could possibly get for a hospital which leaves the hospital in a lurch."

Anniversary Commemorations

Outside the gates of Chernobyl reactor number four there is a memorial to the heroes and professionals who worked here after the explosion. As many as half-a-million people have been involved in the clean-up or repairs of the site since 1986. Tens of thousands have died or become sick since then.

These sites will be the focus of the 25th anniversary commemorations. The commemorations might bring some comfort, but the problems will linger.

Author: Karen Percy
Editor: Guy Degen

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