New York, NY (April 2006) -- Medical professionals attended a special conference on thyroid cancer on April 20, 2006, at the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan (New York City).
On the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, (middle photo, left to right) Daniel Branovan, MD, director of the Thyroid Center at The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, and Christine Durbak, MD, chair of World Information Transfer, Inc., were co-sponsors of a recent international medical conference at the United Nations on "Living with Radiation: Thyroid Cancer After Chernobyl." Rep. Jerrold Nadler was guest speaker at the luncheon and related moving examples of his constituents who faced radiation exposure.
The link between nuclear fallout exposure and thyroid cancer is well documented, and the incidence has been rising sharply since the 1990’s. Dr. Branovan pointed out that this is an important health issue as the New York area is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Eastern European immigrants and more than 100,000 persons who may have been in the affected regions of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.
Read more about the conference in the September 1, 2006 issue of New York County Medical Society's Manhattan Medical News.The following story is from the New York Times on the Web © The New York Times Company. Reprinted with Permission.
April 20, 2006
The disaster struck 20 years ago on the other side of the world, in a nation that no longer exists, and the memory has faded in American minds. But the legacy of Chernobyl is turning up in hospitals and clinics in New York, where it is growing.
Cancer of the thyroid gland is rising in the United States, to about 30,000 new cases a year, according to the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, and it is climbing more sharply in New York State. While there are no data on the rates among different ethnic groups, doctors who work with émigrés from the former Soviet Union say that that population accounts for a significant part of the rise, because of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Pripyat, Ukraine, on April 26, 1986.
There is much dispute over the death toll and some of the health effects from Chernobyl. But the link between nuclear fallout exposure and thyroid cancer is well documented, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in areas of the United States and other countries that were affected by aboveground nuclear tests. Since Chernobyl, studies have found rates of thyroid cancer in Belarus and Ukraine that are several times higher than before the accident.
Thyroid cancer is usually curable when it is caught early, but it kills about 1,500 people a year in the United States, in part because it can go undetected for years. Doctors who treat immigrants from Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia say that they see a disturbing number of advanced cases because patients do not know that they should be tested, and they often see American doctors who do not immediately think in terms of radiation exposure.
Now, a group of doctors in New York are trying to warn immigrants and their own doctors of the danger, and they have helped to organize a conference of scientists to be held at the United Nations today — a few days short of the 20th anniversary — on the link between Chernobyl and thyroid cancer. They say a systematic effort is needed to screen people who might have been exposed, as in Belarus, where nearly all thyroid cancers are caught early enough to be cured. Until then, it is impossible even to know the scope of the problem.
"The diagnosis comes when they've already had symptoms like sore throat and it's already spread to lymph nodes, which is much more serious," said Dr. Daniel I. Branovan, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, in the East Village, and an organizer of the conference.
Pavel Zhukov knew the risks of radiation exposure when he lived in Mtsensk, in western Russia. The government gave people small stipends to compensate for the nuclear danger, he said, but "people called it burial money."
Mr. Zhukov, a 50-year-old construction worker, said he was told years ago in Russia that his thyroid showed signs of abnormality, but he did not know what to do about it. He went seven or eight years without an ultrasound scan of his thyroid, he said, before moving to Brooklyn from Mtsensk five months ago and having a scan there.
He had cancer, in a fairly advanced form. On April 7, his thyroid was surgically removed, and he faces follow-up treatment with radiation. But Mr. Zhukov was lucky; doctors found no cancer in his lymph nodes.
Diagnoses of thyroid cancer in the United States are about twice as common as they were in the early 1980's, rising most sharply since the mid-1990's, and there is some debate about how much of that is because of improved detection. But most of the increase has been in the form of thyroid cancer most closely associated with radiation exposure. And it has risen faster in New York, home to the nation's largest concentration of Eastern European immigrants, where it doubled in a decade.
There are about 700,000 people living in the United States who were born in Ukraine, Belarus or Russia, including close to 200,000 in New York City, and significantly smaller populations in the suburbs in both New York and New Jersey, according to the Census Bureau and the City Planning Department.
A great majority of those people immigrated after Chernobyl, and they probably account for hundreds of thyroid cancer cases a year, Dr. Branovan said. It is another lesson in how hard it is to isolate health problems in an era when people travel the world with ease and bring diseases — think West Nile encephalitis or SARS — with them.
Diana Akerman remembers seeing other children in Chernovtsy, Ukraine, suddenly lose their hair. "All hair," she said. "Eyelashes, eyebrows."
But her family moved to Brooklyn four years after the accident, and she assumed that the risk to her had passed long ago. Miss Akerman, now a 27-year-old computer programmer living in the borough's Mill Basin section, was unusual in that she had annual screenings. Early this year, a sonogram showed a tiny spot that turned out to be cancerous; it was caught much earlier than most cases.
The heaviest fallout from the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear plant hit Belarus, immediately north of the plant, northern Ukraine and nearby parts of western Russia.
One of the byproducts of nuclear reactions is a radioactive form of iodine. The thyroid, a small gland at the base of the throat, collects iodine.
The first deaths and illness from Chernobyl hit people whose bodies were simply overwhelmed by massive doses of radiation. Soon after came a wave of cancers, like leukemia and lymphoma.
Thyroid cancers occurred most often in children, and those tended to appear in the first decade. But for adults exposed to radiation, thyroid cancer can take 20 years or more to develop.
The Soviet government waited days before admitting to the accident, and at first played down the seriousness. It offered little useful advice in the critical early days.
Olga Sereda lived in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, less than 80 miles south of Chernobyl. She said that five days after the accident, thousands of people were obliged to attend the annual May Day demonstration, standing outside for hours, exposed to the fallout.
Ms. Sereda, 50, who now lives in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, said she, too, assumed years ago that she was no longer in danger. But last summer, two years after she moved to the United States, her doctor diagnosed thyroid cancer, her gland was removed and she underwent radiation therapy.
Now, she says, she fears for her daughter and her mother, who are both still in the Ukraine, and wonders what staying there has done to them. "If we knew what can happen," she said, "maybe we would behave differently."
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