Children of Turkey caught in the shadow of Chernobyl

PICTURES of balding children with leukaemia have been filling newspapers in Turkey, their angry parents accusing the government of letting their loved ones fall victim to radioactive rain from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

As headlines, such as 'Chernobyl has really exploded now', invade front pages, lawyers are writing columns advising people how to sue for damages, rival politicians are up in arms and several cases have already been filed against officials in the government of President Turgut Ozal, then the prime minister. The worried atmosphere is a far cry from the weeks after the accident in 1986 when Turkish officials followed each other on to television to sip tea from Turkey's Black Sea coast and assure the public that Chernobyl was nothing to worry about.

What happened, the press now asks, to the ton of contaminated tea that was supposed to be buried but mysteriously disappeared from depots? Was it true that Turkey deliberately sold radioactive tea to take revenge on the old Soviet Union, or that radioactive Turkish hazelnuts contaminated chocolates all over the world? Much of this is speculation, even if one official admitted that mildly radioactive tea had been mixed with uncontaminated stock to bring its becquerel reading down to safe levels.

But the scare is not all smoke without fire, according to the new government of the Prime Minister, Suleyman Demirel. His Health Minister, Yildirim Aktuna, has offered to pay for leukaemia treatments and to investigate an apparent increase in cancer cases among children in the northern parts of Turkey most exposed to Chernobyl radiation; he emphasised, however, that there was no reason to believe there would be a great increase in cancer cases, and that the many worried parents in northern Turkey should relax.

The figures of those affected by the nuclear explosion 700 miles north of Turkey are still confused. Most of the radioactive cloud was blown away from Turkey at the time, but an early report said 100,000 Turks might have been in areas of radioactive rainfall. The governor of the Black Sea province of Trabzon said cancer cases had risen from 19 in 1987 to 232 in 1992, and the number of children with cancer had risen from none to six a year.

Other specialists say cancer statistics are hard to interpret in this developing country of 60 million people. But there was an unexplained increase in child cases of leukaemia three years after the Chernobyl explosion, a time delay similar to that observed after the atom bomb exploded in Hiroshima in 1945.

'Before Chernobyl, we treated 45 to 55 cases (of child leukaemia) a year. There was no rise until 1989, when we treated 94 cases, and 1990, when there were 72. Now the level is back to normal,' said Gunduz Gedikoglu, president of the Children's Leukaemia Foundation. The proportion of cases from the northern coast had, however, stayed constant at about 4 per cent in Dr Gedikoglu's hospital.

The affair has been put to political use in a variety of ways. The government loves to blacken every act of Mr Demirel's main rival, Mr Ozal. The alleged scandal is also a wonderful stick for academics to beat the hated Higher Education Board, set up by the leaders of Turkey's 1980 military coup. The board had banned all scientists from commenting on Chernobyl. Turkish journalists even say the scare is useful in raising health consciousness in a country where many Turkish men still seem to believe that Turks are immune to Aids.

Specialists say the calm reaction of Mr Ozal's government, even his famous alleged statement that a little radiation is good for you, may in the end be technically vindicated, but that he was wrong to stifle all independent warnings of radiation dangers.

'Panic is being created because of a wish to take revenge on the thick-headed approach of the previous period,' said Turkan Akyol, a state minister in Mr Demirel's government. 'This is as dangerous as the radiation . . . think of the feelings of pregnant mothers on the Black Sea.'

(Photograph omitted)

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