WVU Physicians of Charleston Offers Free Medical Services and Area Families and Churches Sponsor Summer Respite for Youth Affected by Radiation.
A group of children from Belarus paid a visit to Charleston recently as part of a program to monitor the effects of radiation on those who live near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The visitors -- who ranged in age from seven to mid teens – were given examinations by Dr. Steven Artz, an endocrinologist with WVU Physicians of Charleston and a professor at the West Virginia University School of Medicine Charleston Campus. Artz and his team, which included endocrinologist Dr. Richa Singh, look for effects of radiation on the body such as enlarged thyroid glands. "If we see something unusual in the blood tests, such as abnormal thyroid levels, we'll bring the children back for more tests," Artz said.
Dr. Artz has been involved with the program since 1996 and says his connection partly comes from his great-grandfather having lived in the region. Dr. Artz also believes that physicians and medical schools should give back to the community when they can.
"The idea is to give the children six weeks where they are away from the high level of radiation that still exists in their home country," Dr. Artz said.
The children are chosen by doctors in Belarus to participate in the program based on their medical needs. In the United States, the American Belarus Relief Organization coordinates the program with churches in several states. Church members annually host children from Belarus, which was part of the Soviet Union when the Chernobyl nuclear accident occurred in 1986. Local churches pay for airfare from Belarus to the United States, and provide homes for them for six weeks during the summer.
The nuclear accident
On April 26, 1986, at 1:23 a.m. an explosion and fire occurred in Reactor Number 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. Before engineers and scientists could get it under control, 190 tons of highly radioactive material were released into the atmosphere. The radioactive particles rained down not only on Chernobyl, but all over Ukraine, as well as the neighboring countries of Belarus and Russia, and drifted over to other European countries such as Poland. Scientists estimate that the amount of particles released was equivalent to the effect of 20 nuclear bombs. The Chernobyl accident remains the largest peacetime nuclear disaster ever.
The massive radiation killed 31 people within a short time, mostly plant workers and people close to the accident site who died of radiation sickness. As time passed it became clear that the accident had left a number of serious long-term health problems for the people who lived in the area. These health problems were made worse by the poverty, poor nutrition, and lack of medical care in the region.
Thyroid cancer and the children
Most people around the world have forgotten the events of 1986. People in the area, however, are reminded of the nuclear accident whenever they look at their children and youth. Long-term exposure to low-dose radiation, which remains in the food chain and watercourses, results in a continuing high incidence of cancer-related illnesses in children throughout Belarus and neighboring Ukraine. The children are often behind in their growth, have poor dental health, immune disorders, and have a 10 times higher than normal rate of thyroid cancer.
The children who come to Charleston as part of the group were not even born when the accident at the nuclear power plant took place in 1986. Most of the children live in Mogilev, a major city in Belarus. Belarus borders on Ukraine to the south. After the Chernobyl accident, prevailing winds carried heavy concentrations of radiation to Belarus and surrounding countries.
Belarus spends some as much as 20 per cent of its available budget on dealing with the effects of Chernobyl and its growth as a country is significantly influenced by this.
But the disaster has left a legacy of illness, poverty and death behind for families still living in that region of the world. Cancer, heart disease, bone disorders and other illnesses affect most of the children, and the time they spend in the U.S. does them a world of good physically and emotionally.