Publié: 22 avril 2011 19:57 CET

By Joe Lowry in Kiev

While the world struggles to deal with the triple disaster in Japan, international attention was focussed on an earlier nuclear disaster in Ukraine this week, with the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the explosion of reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl power station.

Senior figures from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Japanese Red Cross and Ukraine Red Cross took part in an international conference in the Ukrainian capital, at which keynote speaker, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon declared “we stand in solidarity with those who were affected by the disaster”.

The theme of solidarity was taken up by top leadership from the World Health Organisation, UNESCO, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Commission, the International Atomic Energy Agency and by Matthias Schmale, Undersecretary General of the IFRC, delivering an address on behalf of IFRC president Tadateru Konoe.

“To those who are at the centre of our attention today,” he told the conference, “the men, women and children who live, every day, with the consequences of Chernobyl. We in the Red Cross and Red Crescent will continue to be with you, and do our all to support you in the years to come. We will work with you where you are, and where you go, and we will work with the governments of your respective countries to ensure that you have the assistance and support that you need.”

One of the eight million people living with the consequences of the disaster is Lyudmila Oschina, a 54-year-old teacher, who lives in the tiny village of Ukrainka, some 70 kilometres from the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

“Of course I remember hearing about the disaster”, she says, during a visit from the Ukraine Red Cross mobile thyroid screening laboratory to her village. “But I didn't believe it for several days, Then when it became official, we sent our children to the south of the country for two months. We were very worried for their health.”

That fear for the health of those living in areas affected by radioactive iodine in the aftermath of the explosion led to the IFRC, along with the Red Cross societies of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, to start CHARP, the Chernobyl Humanitarian Assistance and Rehabilitation programme, in 1990.

The basis of the programme is mass thyroid gland screening in the most rural and inaccessible areas in three regions of Ukraine, three in Belarus and one Russian region. Each year seven mobile laboratories screen some 100,000 patients using ultrasound machines or fine needle biopsy.

“The impact of the programme is huge,” says Nikolay Nagorny, who has been managing the programme for the IFRC since its inception. “We detect 200 confirmed cases of cancer every year but more worryingly more than 50 per cent of the people we screen have some thyroid abnormality, which may go on to become cancerous.

“In theory everyone is entitled to free follow-up treatment, such as an operation, or hormone treatment, or just regular monitoring, but we have discovered that at least half of the people we recommend for further treatment don’t go, as it’s too expensive for them to travel to the nearest big town for an overnight stay. We would like to be able to support them financially, but we are struggling to cover the costs of the programme. In fact, if we do not find a new donor soon this programme may have to be wound down, which would be a tragedy within a tragedy.”

It would indeed be a major loss for people like Lyudmila. The relief in her eyes at being given a clean bill of health is clear. For others who have some thyroid irregularities counselling is available from qualified staff on the mobile lab teams. Either way, knowing one’s health status enables people – who might have lived with nagging doubts for 25 years – to make informed choices about their health.

On the request of local women, CHARP has also been offering breast screening, which has proved both successful and needed. And on the advice of UNAIDS, some HIV information is being offered as part of the healthy lifestyles aspect of the programme, given that the rate of infection is quite high in small towns affected by Chernobyl due to injecting drug use and other high-risk behaviour.

“People’s morale really suffers from the stigma of living on or near radioactive land”, says Nikolay Nagorny. “The famous Slavic sense of fatalism gets magnified, and people smoke too much, drink too much, worry too much – all of this can also, as the UN has noted, lead to increased cancers on top of the risks from radioactivity.”

This week, the sense of solidarity emanating from the conference was also manifested in tiny Ukrainka village by Red Cross staff. Ultrasound technician Vasily Berezhnoi reflected on the Fukushima disaster, saying “I feel terrible for the Japanese people and what happened there. Clearly we will never have full control over the atom; there could be a catastrophe at any time. It’s such a tragic coincidence that this happened now, on the eve of our anniversary. Japanese Red Cross has helped us so much over the years – now we must do all we can to help them”.