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Examing a child

Although his cancer has been cured, 15 year-old Anton comes for regular examinations. (Credit: P.Pavlicek/IAEA)

Thyroid Cancer Effects in Children

Staff Report

August 2005

The main consequence of the Chernobyl accident is thyroid cancer in children, some of whom were not yet born at the time of the accident. Following the vapour explosion and fire at the Chernobyl reactor, radioactive iodine was released and spread in the surrounding area. Despite measures taken, children in southern Belarus and northern Ukraine, were exposed to radiation in the weeks following the accident , particularly by consuming milk from pastured cows and leafy vegetables that had been contaminated with radioactive iodine. These children were also relatively more vulnerable because their usual diet, in general, was low in iodine.

The thyroid is a small gland located in the front of the neck. It concentrates iodine from the diet and blood to produce important hormones that help the body function normally. Thyroid cancer is a very rare disease. Since the thyroid gland concentrates iodine, it is highly susceptible to radiation damage from any intake of radioactive isotopes of iodine.

Once ingested or inhaled, the radioactive iodine remains in the thyroid and can cause thyroid cells to become cancerous and tumours to form. According to the Chernobyl Forum, some 4000 cases of thyroid cancers have occurred in about 18 million individuals who were exposed as children or adolescents during the Chernobyl accident.

Fortunately, thyroid cancer can be treated, with surgery, drugs, and radiation therapy very successfully. Children today need not die of thyroid cancer. In radiation therapy, radiation is used to kill the cancerous thyroid cells. This can be done either with an external radiation source or, more commonly, with special oral preparation of radioactive iodine. Because the thyroid will concentrate all kinds of iodine, by giving a patient a carefully determined large dose of radioactive iodine, it will rapidly concentrate in the thyroid and kill the cancerous cells.

Today in the Ukraine, hundreds of children have had their thyroid cancer diagnosed and treated at the Institute of Endocrinology and Metabolism of the Ukrainian Academy of Medical Sciences in Kiev. Since March 2000, the Agency has been supporting this work by supplying the radioactive iodine used to treat these patients. Over the course of one year, the Agency is providing US $100, 000 to purchase the radioactive iodine.

Over the past five years since its creation, the Institute has been working hard to screen possibly affected children in the Ukraine. Those who are diagnosed with cancer eventually go to Professor Ovsei Epstein, Head of the Department of Nuclear Diagnostics and Radioiondine Therapy, for treatment The results of this hard work and dedication has paid off in the lives that have been saved. "In 1999-2000," he noted "we had twelve young women completely recovered from cancer. All of them produced healthy babies?that抯 one of the best assessments of our work."

The lives of many children were affected by the Chernobyl accident. But through the hard work of dedicated medical staff in the Ukraine and elsewhere and with the support of the international community, children like Karina, Anton, and Sergei have access to effective diagnosis and treatment and the promise of a healthy future.