July 4, 2005

Young Chernobyl victims heal in Cuban sun

By Anthony Boadle

TARARA, Cuba (Reuters) - At a beach resort near Havana,children with bald heads and skin lesions splash with joy inthe warm Caribbean sea.

They are victims of radiation fallout from the worstcivilian disaster of the nuclear age -- the 1986 power plantexplosion in Chernobyl -- and are in Cuba for treatment.

"I want to stay here," says Sveta, a blue-eyed 15-year-oldfrom Ukraine's capital Kiev whose eyelashes are beginning togrow back.

Since 1990, communist Cuba has treated free of charge18,000 Ukrainian children for hair loss, skin disorders,cancer, leukemia and other illnesses attributed to theradioactivity unleashed by the reactor meltdown years beforethey were born.

Up to 800 children travel to the Tarara Pediatric Hospitaleach year for at least two months, accompanied by parents ortutors. Some stay years. They live in bungalows built as beachhouses by rich Cubans before Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.

Most get treatment for hair loss, spending 15 minutes a dayunder an infrared light after a lotion made from human placentais applied to their heads. Hair grows back in 60 percent ofcases, said Dr. Giraldo Hernandez.

Many children suffer from vitiligo, a patchy loss of skinpigmentation, which is treated with another placenta-basedlotion and lots of sunlight on the beach. Psoriasis is alsocommon.

More serious cases of cancer require chemotherapy orsurgery. Six leukemia patients have received bone marrowtransplants in Cuba.

While some disorders, such as the 30-fold increase inthyroid cancer among Ukrainian children, are directly linked tothe Chernobyl accident, scientists do not know whether hairloss is caused by radioactive pollution or post-traumaticstress.


Recreation in the tropical sun is as much a part of thecure as the medical treatment, Cuban doctors say.

Baldness is particularly difficult to bear for adolescentgirls painfully aware of their looks, some of whom arrive inCuba wearing wigs.

Playing on Tarara's palm tree-lined beach, they soon shedtheir complexes and recover a joy for life and personal goals,said Dr. Hernandez.

"It helps. We sit under the infrared lamp and they put alotion on our heads. Then we go to the beach," said 16-year-oldAlina Petrusha from Zaporozhe, in southeast Ukraine.

She began to lose her hair when she was 8 and has spent atotal of 2-1/2 years at Tarara since 2001. Wearing jeans andtanktop, three rings on an ear, glitter lip gloss and eyebrowspainted on with a makeup pencil, Alina says she and her friendslove to go dancing at Tarara's disco at night.

"My hair starts to grow here, but when I go home I lose itagain," she said.


Havana began helping Chernobyl children when Ukraine was aSoviet republic and communist ally. The program was maintainedafter Soviet communism collapsed, plunging Cuba into deepeconomic crisis from which it has not recovered.

Cuba has never revealed the cost of the program, whichUkrainian officials estimate at some $300 million to date.

"Like no other country Cuba held out a helping hand at avery difficult moment. We suffered an immense catastrophe andneeded help for the most valuable thing any nation has: itschildren," said Raisa Moinsenko, a Ukrainian Health Ministryofficial.Many of the children are orphans or come from poor familiesthat cannot afford medical treatment in Ukraine, where publichealth care has deteriorated since the demise of the communiststate and private medical care is expensive.

The radioactive contamination from Chernobyl will takedecades to break down and genetic defects among Ukrainianchildren are expected to continue occurring for years.

Tania Syomka from Zaporozhe flew to Cuba a year ago withher crippled daughter for an operation to treat a deformationof her spine that she could not pay for at home.

"Now Irina can do everything she wants, go to the beach andthe disco. She is a tall and very pretty girl now," Syomkasaid.

The longest resident at Tarara, Vladimir Zaslaski, couldnot walk when he arrived 11 years ago suffering from aprogressive neurological movement disorder. His spasms endedafter Cuban neurosurgeons operated.

"This comes from Chernobyl. Thanks to Cuba I began to walka year ago," the 21-year-old said.