By John Henderson
Rocky Mount Telegram
Children from Belarus who continue to be exposed to radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant incident have once again traveled to Rocky Mount from the former Soviet Union to receive free medical care.
But fewer local "host families" in this down economy have been able pay for the flights and take the children into their homes for six weeks. The host families also take the children to local offices for medical, eye and dental care treatment.
On Monday, the children were given their free medical exams by Boice-Willis Pediatrics.
"These are little kids who were exposed to something like Hiroshima, who 23 years after the accident are still dealing with the after-effects," said Dr. Nicholas Patrone, president and chief medical officer of the clinic.
He said the recession has taken its toll on the seven-year program, with only 18 children being treated in Rocky Mount this year, compared to 34 last year. The program is administered through the Zebulon-based American Belarussian Relief Organization (ABRO).
"Much of (the contributions) come through different Baptist churches," Patrone said.
ABRO's Web page states that its mission is to provide clean food, rest and sanctuary in a radiation-free zone for children ranging in age from 7 to 16.
On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant reactor exploded, releasing dangerous amounts of radiation into the air. The wind on that day carried it toward Belarus, contaminating the region's air, soil and water.
"The problem is there is so much unknown radiation material (in Belarus), and it will probably be there for 3,000 or 4,000 years," Patrone said. "Some of the food is not safe."
Patrone is a host parent himself to three - a 19-year-old and two 9-year-olds who affectionately refer to him as "uncle."
Other Belarus children refer to their host family adults as "mamma" and "pappa."
"Some of their parents are dead," he said. "The life expectancy (in Belarus) is in the mid-50s."
Belarus, a small country that was formerly part of the Soviet Union, received about 70 percent of the radiation damage from the Chernobyl incident.
The children have been suffering ever since.
"Medically, they are small in size," Patrone said. "Some have thyroid problems and an occasional immune-deficiency problem. They are still suffering, because basically, radiation is still in the dirt."
If a child is diagnosed with a major problem here such as thyroid cancer, they are sent back to Belarus for treatment, he said.
"(The trip to Rocky Mount) is a way to get out of the radiation zone and to give kids a second (doctor's) opinion," he said.
The children also are being taken to local dentists and eye doctors for treatment.
"It's tough for a lot of them to get dental care (in their country)," he said.
Orphans make up a fair share of those served by the program. On a trip to Belarus in December, Patrone visited some of the orphanages.
Generally speaking, the children in the past six or seven years have had improving health, he said.
"I think the standard of care in their own country has improved," he said.
ABRO is not the only organization reaching out to help the Belarus children.
"A lot of (help) comes from other countries too - Italy, England, France, Belgium, Germany, Canada," he said.
Unlike recent years, the children who were being treated on Monday at the Boice-Willis Clinic, as well as their host parents, refused to comment for this story.
Their government has been clamping down on some of the overseas trips.
According to a recent news reports, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had ordered a ban on foreign trips to Canada for children headed to a similar relief program after a 16-year-old girl last year defected after visiting with her host family in California.