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Millennium Post

How to heal a wounded land

26 April 1986 is a sad day for humankind. 27-years-ago, the world’s largest technogenic catastrophe occurred as the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded. Of course, on a planetary scale, the event happened barely yesterday; for us, a significant portion of time has passed The date marks a stage in our tragic fate – an ultimate injustice; having lost 30 per cent of the population during World War II, Belarus was then afflicted by this Chernobyl pain. Over 70 per cent of the radioactivity fell on the Belarusian territory, with 20 per cent of Belarusians affected, including over 5,00,000 children.


WOUNDED LAND

Belarus was the most affected country since the largest amount of radioactive fallout rained on our territory. With this in mind, the problem of how to deal with the consequences of the event remains topical, since strontium and caesium take time to become inactive.

Immediately after the catastrophe, over 46,000 square kms of Belarusian land was contaminated with radioactive particles (23 per cent). This figure now stands at 30,000 square kms (14.5 per cent). Belarusian and Russian scientists have published an atlas showing today’s situation and that prognosed for our two states over coming years. It is thought that current radiation levels in affected villages and cities will remain until 2046, while Belarus’ caesium contamination will continue until 2090. Plutonium and strontium, which fell in a 30 kms radius of the nuclear plant, will exist, sadly, for several generations. Despite the huge economic losses caused by the catastrophe, Belarus has achieved much in dealing with the consequences of Chernobyl. Initially, people were moved from contaminated regions, rehomed in safe areas, while an efficient system of radiation control was put in place. Gradually, the country has shifted to the social-economic revival of Chernobyl-affected regions. It is a major task of a new state programme, running until 2015 – costing $2.2bln (double that was spent in the previous five years).  Territory contaminated by radio-nuclides can be conventionally divided into that considered habitable and that not. Where contamination exceeds 15 curie per square kilometre, production activity is prohibited, as is residence. Lower figures are deemed suitable for living, as long as radiation safety measures are met. At present, 5,200 square kilometres are known as a ‘dead zone’, with over 137,000 people relocated. However, some people have chosen to live and work within the zone. The Chernobyl disaster most significantly affected Belarusian agriculture, with over a million hectares of land covered with caesium-137 and strontium over 3,50,000 hectares. Those territories which have been significantly contaminated cannot be farmed, resulting in over 265,000 hectares of land being taken out of use, explains Zinaida Basalaeva, who heads Agricultural Radiology and Environmental Protection at the Belarusian Agriculture and Food Ministry.


FROM REHABILITATION TO REVIVAL

The tragedy which Belarus suffered as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was a true shock for the residents of the affected regions. Now, everything has changed – both for those who moved home and those who stayed. They are now settled, making plans for the future and understanding their circumstances. Naturally, they had much to consider, taking into account the possible influence of radiation on their health.

Scientists admit that radiation can certainly affect human health. Initially, radioactive iodine makes the most impact, accumulating in the thyroid gland. Most of those affected by Chernobyl suffered ‘iodine stroke’, with the number of cases of thyroid gland illnesses rising, including cancer. Over 30 per cent of the country’s population suffer from problems with their thyroid gland. According to the World Health Organisation, it is the only disease which is rooted in the Chernobyl disaster. However, Belarusian scientists have conducted experiments to prove that other illnesses have occurred due to increased radiation. It influences the body’s immune, endocrine and cardiovascular systems, among others. Scientists’ observations of the post-Chernobyl situation have highlighted the negative consequences of the catastrophe on health and society in general.

Psychologically, the first years after the disaster were very hard. Government had to calm people down, making them believe that life would go on. We tried to assure them that we’d do all we could to make life more comfortable, following specialists’ recommendations.

The new state programme, launched in 2011, focuses on overcoming the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe. As before, it aims to protect citizens, giving medical and social support in the affected regions while ensuring that food meets norms. For many years, Belarus will need to continue checking for radiation levels; our laboratories make over 11 million such tests. Financing of domestic agriculture and forestry is essential, since radionuclides will be here for some time to come.


PROTECTING HEALTH


These recommendations have guided the state in reviving the affected territories. Medical rehabilitation of the population has been a priority of the state programme to overcome the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant catastrophe, with about 1.7 million people affected. Among them have been more than 3,60,000 children. Residents of the affected territories have received free sanatorium recuperation to improve their health and, annually, over 3,00,000 have received attention, including over 2,50,000 children and teenagers. Since the disaster, new medical institutions have opened across the country, in addition to specialised clinics and centres equipped with the most modern medical equipment. Belarusian scientists have developed their own treatment methods, cutting relapses to just 3.2 per cent. Similar positive trends have been observed with other severe diseases.


HEALTHY VIEW OF THE FUTURE


Twenty seven years after the catastrophe, Belarus still faces problems relating to radiation, so the country’s state policy regarding the affected regions remains significant. The programme of rehabilitation – running until 2015 – focuses on the development of each region’s potential, ensuring economic revival and the provision of a good standard of living. The medical aspect also remains topical, so re-equipment of hospitals and polyclinics will continue and new remedial technologies and approaches will be implemented. In the coming years, the hospital plans to reach a figure of 1,000. The latest medical expertise is becoming available countrywide, helped by the Gomel Region’s Telemedicine project — implemented by Gomel’s State Medical University and Japan’s Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation. They have installed network and computer equipment at 12 district hospitals, enabling local doctors to hold tele-consultations with Belarus’ leading doctors at any time. By late 2011, this form of medical assistance will be available at every district hospital in the region. ‘Video-conferencing is an innovation being actively used in medicine,’ explains the Head of Gomel State Medical University’s Department of Phthisiology and Pulmonology, Dmitry Ruzanov. ‘The major advantage of telemedicine is that it allows doctors in remote areas to gain the assistance of highly qualified doctors; they are no longer isolated.’

Telemedicine consultations take place online, using communication channels and video equipment. A telemedicine co-ordinating centre operates at Gomel’s State Medical University, offering communications between specialists and doctors. Patients can also take part if they wish. Telemedicine systems allow dialogue with a medical expert from any distance, providing the necessary information to make an informed diagnosis. Online operations are the next goal for Gomel’s doctors. These are expected to be conducted under the supervision of a highly qualified doctor, starting from 2012. As a result, those in need will be able to receive professional medical treatment which might otherwise have eluded them.

The author is counsellor at the Embassy of Belarus in Delhi

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