Some 5,000 people who were children and adolescents at the time of the world's worst-ever civil nuclear accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine, have so far been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and there may be up to 9,000 excess cancer deaths, according to a new United Nations scientific study on the health impact of the disaster.
As the world prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of the accident on April 26, the report issued by the UN World Health Organization, WHO, recommends renewed efforts to provide the public and key professionals with accurate information about the health impact as part of the efforts to revitalize the people and areas affected.
However a new report from the environmental group Greenpeace challenges the UN and reveals that the full consequences of the Chernobyl disaster could top a quarter of a million cancers cases and nearly 100,000 fatal cancers.
According to Greenpeace the report involved 52 respected scientists and includes information never before published in English and describes the UN International Atomic Energy Agency Chernobyl Forum report, "as a gross simplification of the real breadth of human suffering".
"As we work to rebuild futures, we must not forget the families of those who died as a result of the accident, and those who continue to suffer the consequences of radiation exposure and the severe disruption of their lives," WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook said of the report, which covers contaminated regions in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, home to more than 5 million people.
But Greenpeace's report based on Belarus national cancer statistics predicts approximately 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl. The report also concludes that on the basis of demographic data, during the last 15 years, 60,000 people have additionally died in Russia because of the Chernobyl accident, and estimates of the total death toll for the Ukraine and Belarus could reach another 140,000.
The report also looks into the ongoing health impacts of Chernobyl and concludes that radiation from the disaster has had a devastating effect on survivors; damaging immune and endocrine systems, leading to accelerated ageing, cardiovascular and blood illnesses, psychological illnesses, chromosomal aberrations and an increase in foetal deformations.
"The WHO report on the health effects of Chernobyl gives the most affected countries, and their people, the information they need to be able to make vital public health decisions as they continue to rebuild their communities. WHO is supporting these efforts."
The agency is continuing its efforts to improve health care for affected populations through the establishment of telemedicine and educational programmes, and supporting research.
After the accident 116,000 people were evacuated from the area. An additional 230,000 people were relocated from the highly contaminated areas in subsequent years.
Relocation proved a deeply traumatic experience because of disruption to social networks and the impossibility of returning home. For many people, there has been a social stigma associated with being an "exposed person," the report notes.
Those who were affected came to be labelled as "Chernobyl victims." Despite government compensation and benefits for evacuees and residents, some people perceive themselves as victims rather than survivors, with limited control over their own futures.
Many of these people have demonstrated higher anxiety levels, multiple unexplained physical symptoms and subjective poor health compared to non-exposed population.