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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Demographic Disaster Descending on Belarus

MINSK -- Belarus has been plunged into a demographic disaster, with soaring levels of infertility and genetic changes 14 years after the Chernobyl disaster in neighboring Ukraine, doctors said.

"Science cannot yet assess the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, but it is plain that a demographic catastrophe has occurred in Belarus," Vladislav Ostapenko, head of Belarus' radiation medicine institute, told a news conference Tuesday.

"It is clear that we are seeing genetic changes, especially among those who were less than 6 years of age when subjected to radiation. These people are now starting families."

Belarus, a country of 10 million downwind from Chernobyl, bore the brunt of the April 26, 1986 explosion and fire in the power station's fourth reactor.

One quarter of its territory was subjected to severe contamination and tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes.

Ostapenko said that within seven years of the accident, mortality rates were outstripping birth rates.

Girls in affected areas had five times the normal rate of deformations in their reproductive systems and boys three times the norm. Each year, 2,500 births were recorded with genetic abnormalities and 500 pregnancies were terminated after testing.

Thousands of cases of thyroid cancer, rare in areas not subject to high radiation levels, have been recorded in Belarus' "risk zone," where a million people still live. High levels have now been observed among teenagers.

"We are seeing problems of infertility in this generation," he said.

Gennady Lazyuk, head of a state institute for hereditary diseases, said the aftermath of the accident was compounded by ills associated with post-Soviet hardship.

"Of course this is a complex problem and includes low living standards, alcoholism and poor nutrition," he said. "Regardless, in contaminated areas the growth rate in genetic abnormalities is more than twice as high as in uncontaminated areas."