by Giovanni Zambello
On 26 April 1986, an unprecedented nuclear explosion happened near Chernobyl, northern Ukraine. Large quantities of radioactive material was blasted into the atmosphere and affected over 8 million people across Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Russia.
Since 1990, the Red Cross Societies of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, in concert with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), has run the Chernobyl Humanitarian Assistance and Rehabilitation Programme (CHARP), a project which provides effective medical, social and psychological assistance to individuals in the regions affected by the Chernobyl disaster.
The main focus of the project remains thyroid cancer screening for people who were under 40 years old at the time of the nuclear accident and live in radiation contaminated areas. “Through seven Red Cross mobile diagnostics laboratories operating across the three countries, we have managed to reach even the most isolated and rural parts of the region, where health services are hard to access,” says Nikolay Nagorny, IFRC Coordinator for Ukraine and Chernobyl Programmes, Kiev.
Nikolay Haiduk was born on 27 July 1985 in the village of Verkhniy Terebezhov, in the Stolin District, southern Belarus. Less than one year later, when Nikolay was just ten months old, his village was coated by a blanket of radioactive iodine and other radio-nuclides released from the crippled fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear plant. People in the area did not imagine the problems that would be caused by the radiation. They did not know how to protect themselves.
The radioactive iodine accumulated in human thyroid gland destroys the gland cells and this may lead to thyroid cancer even many years later. The problem is most accute for chidren. According to UN assessments, about 6,000 children living in the areas affected by Chernobyl disaster fell ill with radiation-induced thyroid gland cancer.
In October 1997, the Red Cross mobile diagnostics laboratory (MDL) operating in the village of Verkhniy Terebezhov detected a tumour in Nikolay’s thyroid gland, with suspicion of cancer. Nikolay, who was a schoolboy at that time, was referred to a specialized institution in Minsk for further examination. The results confirmed the presence of thyroid cancer, with signs that it may have spread to other parts of his body.
On 17 October 1997, Nikolay was operated and his thyroid gland was fully removed. He received a substitute hormone therapy and began taking L-thyroxin pills every day. Since then, he has been under constant monitoring of MDL doctors of the Red Cross in Brest region.
In 2005, Nikolay graduated from a college. Currently, he is working in a construction firm and has a normal life. Nikolay is very thankful to the doctors of the Red Cross MDL who detected the cancer in due time and saved his life.
Since the launch of the thyroid screening programme in 1997, the Red Cross MDL has been working in remote areas of Brest region and has detected over 620 thyroid cancer cases.
“Despite the disaster having happened so long ago, the scenario remains worrisome, with data collected by the Red Cross mobile laboratory teams showing that many people living in remote areas affected by the disaster have not been screened recently, and some have not been seen at all,” says Nikolay. “And out of the 115,072 patients screened in 2011 by MDL teams operating in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, over 55,000 – some 50% – revealed signs of thyroid pathologies, and diagnosis of thyroid cancer was confirmed in 186 patients. These are clear signs that today our work is still badly needed, especially in these hard-to-reach communities.”
As a member of the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Chernobyl, the IFRC is continuing its work on the implementation of the UN Action Plan on Chernobyl, which will run until 2016.
“Since the start of the programme, CHARP specialists have accumulated a unique knowledge in providing cost-effective and quality services to the people affected by the nuclear disaster,” says Zlatko Kovac, IFRC country representative for Belarus and Ukraine. “From the very beginning, the programme has contributed to a better understanding of new ways to detect serious diseases such as gland cancer, and to improve the quality of life of the affected people.
“Moreover, it has cast light on the essential role of the Red Cross Red Crescent in preparing for and responding to technological disasters. This knowledge is now available for others to use, if needed, through the IFRC and the National Societies working in the Chernobyl programme.”