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Chernobyl Zombies? Chernobyl HIV? Chernobyl Forever?

Posted: 05/26/2012 5:13 pm

Get ready, world! Chernobyl is back, almost 10,000 days later, in vivid color, with gore, blood, and ... zombies!

This weekend, Hollywood is premiering Chernobyl Diaries, a horror movie about six teenaged "extreme tourists" who visit the radioactive hotspot on vacation, only to discover that the place is populated by mutant zombies. Pre-release comment ranges from "Awesome!" and "I can't wait" to "video poop" and "teen-flick nonsense."

It will be interesting to see the reaction among people in contaminated villages of Eastern Europe, for whom life today is real and somber. They are not kids enjoying "extreme tourism" in a fantasy movie; they are not zombies; they are families--parents, children, newborns--trying to live normal lives in the continuing reality of nuclear hell twenty-six years after the 1986 disaster, before most of them were born.

Chernobyl Now Shadows Three Generations.

The Chernobyl disaster now shadows three generations in Eastern Europe. The human toll of first-generation victims was calculated in sickness and death among operators of the facility, among cleanup workers, and among everyday citizens of this region. These casualties, commemorated in annual ceremony as heroes, were followed in subsequent years by afflictions among a second generation, their offspring, compassionately embraced as the "Children of Chernobyl".

Now comes a third generation--the children of the children of the original victims--or, as I've labeled them, the "Grandchildren of Chernobyl." Some families suspect radiation-related health problems with their infant children; but scientific evidence is lacking and it is too soon to say that their conditions are related to lingering contamination. Clearly, however, grandparents and parents are hoping for the best while fearing for the worst; and a slew of humanitarians are trying to prevent such horrible regeneration.

Ground-Zero Observation.

I spent the last week of April in contaminated areas of Ukraine as part of a group of parliamentarians and journalists commemorating the April 26 anniversary of the 1986 reactor explosion.* We were able to visit with all three generations--in their homes, schools, orphanages, and other places of community life.

We also looked at the humanitarian efforts of Green Cross International, one of many organizations trying to help this area. Green Cross (founded and headed by Mikhail Gorbachev) conducts varied programs designed to intervene at the family level and stem the damage being wrought by the Chernobyl catastrophe.

What Did We Find?

We found that nuclear contamination is still widespread and splotchy, mainly impacting portions of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Radiation overall is decreasing; but many places are still too "hot" for residency, farming, or any semblance of normal life. Thyroid cancer has increased; and other ailments are being investigated.

But that is not all of the suffering in these regions.

Mental Health Issues.

Last year, Dr. Jonathan M. Samet and Sonny Patel, both from the University of Southern California, surveyed published research and conducted focus groups among impacted populations. They found increasing levels of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, cognitive impairment, and decreased sense of well-being in the area. And they concluded:

The broad findings from these two sources are convergent and clear: twenty-five years after the Chernobyl disaster, the populations affected at the time, whether by being displaced or exposed to radiation, have sustained neuropsychological consequences and these consequences remain of public health and medical significance. ("The Psychological and Welfare Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster," 2011)

Rumors of "Chernobyl HIV".

The most cruel thing I heard was the emerging rumor of "Chernobyl HIV", a whispered warning against romance and friendship with impacted individuals. This damning gossip about some sort of infectious sickness among victims and survivors in that region is baseless; but fear-mongers have begun spreading the rumor anyway. Such talk not only hinders social opportunities for individual survivors; it discourage businesses from investing in impacted areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

Green Cross Initiatives.

Green Cross' efforts are designed especially to help alleviate Chernobyl's damage to families and young people. The group engages in medical treatment, provides mental health assistance, supports childcare programs, trains families to grow and prepare safe food, and offers small financial aid packages (like providing rabbits for commercial raising and marketing).

Stubborn Challenges.

The humanitarians know that their work is only a partial beginning and many things are beyond their reach; but they are passionate about their mission. Maria Vitagliano, the Swiss director of a social and medical care program, bluntly talked about conditions eroding young lives in the region. "I think we will see all of the effects from the past, because up to ten million people will continue to live in contaminated territory."

"But the biggest threats ... are that their families and friends are burdening them with worries, that businesses are avoiding investments and jobs, and that society is stigmatizing them as victims rather than survivors. We have got to stop these practices and give young people a real chance for a better life."

Will Chernobyl Be With Us Forever?

No one knows how long this part of the world will suffer from the Chernobyl disaster. Estimates of radiation danger range widely and wildly; and the outlook varies from place to place according to the amount of contamination. Most knowledgeable specialists predict environmental damage in terms of hundreds of years.

The big question is how do people in impacted areas learn to live with their traumatic legacy.

Chernobyl zombies may be entertaining to some; and Chernobyl HIV makes juicy gossip. However, the families, young people, and precious babies of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia have already suffered aplenty with lost loved-ones, cancer, lingering ailments, mental problems--and nasty rumors. Now there's added adversity due to economic exclusion and social shunning.

Here's hoping that Green Cross International and other groups, along with governmental agencies, can halt the harsh legacy of the 1986 disaster. Otherwise, Chernobyl will continue to haunt Eastern Europeans for decades to come.

*Disclosure: I am an unpaid Senior Advisor to Green Cross International's Environmental Security and Sustainability Program.

 
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