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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chernobyl's Deadly Legacy Continues

MOSCOW - The soldiers and engineers who helped clean up the Chernobyl nuclear disaster are suffering from an alarming suicide rate due to irradiated nervous systems, the breakdown of immune defenses and stress, according to medical experts and social researchers.

Of 7, 000 cleanup workers who have died in the seven years since the world's most serious nuclear accident, 18 percent - or about 1, 250 - took their own lives, according to Stanislav Troitsky, a spokesman for the Russian government's Chernobyl Committee.

The fourth reactor of Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded on April 26, 1986, releasing a deadly cloud of radiation. More than 600, 000 people took part in the cleanup, according to various accounts, which suggest that the large number of workers was due to efforts to limit the amount of radiation absorbed by each individual.

Dr. Alexei Nikiforov, chief of a St. Petersburg research clinic responsible for treating those who took part in the cleanup, said that studies on 1, 600 subjects show that 80 percent of them suffer from serious psychological problems attributable to nerve damage, physical disease and stress.

Further studies in Moscow have shown that over 40 percent of all Chernobyl workers who ask for medical assistance suffer from mental illnesses, including permanent memory loss.

"We have found a lot of damage", Nikiforov said, adding, "In order to expose the specific reasons for the high rate of suicide we need more research".

The doctor said adequate information on the rate of sickness among workers was hard to come by because of poor record-keeping, but that many of those who did not suffer initially were now coming down with heart, lung, stomach and nervous diseases.

"These diseases appear early, develop along different lines than in normal people and continue without visible symptoms, making them very difficult to treat", he said.

Troitsky said the radiation was causing a weakening and breakdown of immune systems similar to the process caused by the AIDS virus.

An ongoing study funded by the University of California's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory is expected to provide more answers about disease and gene mutation caused by radiation, he said.

In addition to the 7, 000 dead, thousands more are suffering from symptoms caused by excessive radiation.

Yevgeny Akimov, 55, an atomic engineer, is one. He spent seven months in the immediate vicinity of the damaged reactor while building the concrete sarcophagus that was designed to enclose it and stem radiation poisoning.

"The first week I began to lose my sight and became hoarse", he said. "After 18 months it became difficult to move about. I am now always nervous and easily fatigued".

"We had no information on the extent of the danger, so many of the young soldiers who worked with us were also heavily irradiated", he added.

"Though the world should be thankful to them, it seems that everyone has now forgotten them. These people die silently with almost no one paying attention".

Like other radiation victims who have few modern medical options, Akimov uses herbal medicines to treat his illness.

Troitsky, who was heavily irradiated as a reporter covering the aftermath of the nuclear explosion and fire, said that the suicide rate of Chernobyl workers was the highest of any group in the country including veterans of the Afghan war.

The rate of 315 per 100, 000 persons is well over 20 times higher than the Health Ministry estimated national suicide rate of 15 per 100, 000.

Troitsky attributes much of the psychological stress and most of the suicides to the victim's sense that they are neglected and that their efforts have gone unappreciated.

"People are being fired from their jobs and losing touch with their families", he said. "People cannot understand their disease because medical analysis shows nothing. Sometimes they are told they are just imagining things".

He said he believed that the world has barely witnessed the beginning of the tragedy.

"In many respects the Chernobyl disaster has just begun", Troitsky said. "It takes years before you can see and understand the symptoms of radiation".

Thyroid and blood diseases usually take five to 10 years to develop, while cancer often takes 20 years to show up.

Russian law provides for lump sum payments equivalent to $100 to $200 to persons who can prove they suffer from radiation. In addition, all former workers are entitled to receive free medical care, food assistance amounting to 500 rubles ($1) a month and 50 percent discounts on rent and electricity bills.

"Unfortunately, the state has no money to finance this law", said Troitsky.

Many military personnel, especially pilots, have lost their jobs as a result of their health problems.

Boris Gerasin, 36, a helicopter pilot in the Afghan war, flew cargo to a platform on the reactor being used to construct the sarcophagus. He was called to the disaster within a day of the meltdown.

Today he suffers from blackouts, nervousness and a lack of sleep.

"I can't stand to knock on any more closed government doors", he said. "I have been given no medical aid. We suffered for the state, but now they have turned their backs on us".