Chernobyl's castaways flock to Israel, seeking care Government says medical need small

others fear illness will strain system

June 13, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- The exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union has brought to Israel the legacy of nuclear danger: thousands of immigrants who were exposed to radiation from the fire seven years ago at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine.

Valarey and Bella Bekar are among them. Four days after the 1986 plant explosion that killed at least 32 people and contaminated thousands of others, they took their young daughter on an outing in the woods near Kiev, 60 miles from Chernobyl. It was raining.

Now, in their home in Jerusalem, they wonder what was in the rain.

"Nobody knew what was happening to us in Kiev," said Bella Bekar, 42, who came to Israel three years ago. "And we don't know what that will mean to our future."

The arrival of the immigrants from the Chernobyl area has stirred a dispute over the problems they may bring.

The government predicts only a small rise in the number of cancers in the country because of the immigrants. Others say the long-term health problems will be much more severe, and they accuse the government of playing down the problem.

Whatever the reality, uncertainty has helped feed what some call "the Chernobyl effect," or "radiomania": ailments caused just by the fear that they have been irradiated.

"If they get some little ache, they don't know what caused it, so they blame the radiation," said Nov Israel, speaking for an immigrants' group called SOS Chernobyl.

"The people don't know whether they got irradiated or not. They want medical examinations. They'd like to have a medical center that would be founded for these immigrants," he said.

Doctors at Soroka Hospital in Beersheva, a Negev desert city where many of the ex-Soviet immigrants were given houses, have begun such a clinic. They are volunteering their time once a week to examine the patients, because the government has declined to finance such a program.

"I think it's a major health question in terms of the number of people involved," said Dr. Michael R. Quastel, head of nuclear medicine at Ben Gurion University, who helped start the clinic. "It's a group that deserves special attention that they are not getting" elsewhere.

Tests on 1,228 immigrants from Ukraine found levels of radiocesium in their bodies to be "actually quite low," he said. But the clinic has started to find other unexpected problems -- asthma, thyroid nodules and low immune response --that may be attributable to nuclear exposure.

The wave of Jewish immigration following the breakup of the Soviet Union has brought 436,000 people to Israel in the last four years. The exodus was heavy with those who sought to leave Russia, Ukraine and Belarus because of fears of continued contamination. By some estimates, more than half the newcomers are from a wide region around Chernobyl.

About 80,000 to 100,000 are from areas closest to the failed nuclear reactor, areas where soil, water and food was contaminated.

"There is a possibility of a rise in the numbers of diseases," said Dr. Yitzak Berlovitz, head of hospitalization for the Ministry of Health. "But even if the rate is higher, there is no justification for doing anything more than to be aware of it."

Using calculations they say come from international health estimates, the Israeli Health Ministry has said it expects only 30 to 160 new cases of malignant cancer and 30 new cases of thyroid disease due to the nuclear accident among the Chernobyl immigrants in Israel.

Such small numbers can be treated in the regular system of health care, said Dr. Berlovitz. "There is no special medical need, except for more psychiatric attention because of their anxieties," he said.

The extreme opposite response can be seen in Kfar Chabad, a community of ultra-Orthodox Jews on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. On the orders of their spiritual leader in Brooklyn, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher sect has brought nearly 800 Jewish children -- some of them ill -- from around Chernobyl to live in Israel in the past three years.

"Our goal is to save these children's lives," said the director of the program, Yossie Raichik. "To do that, we have to remove them physically [from their homes in the Chernobyl area] because there is still radiation in the food, the air, the milk and vegetables."

The parents are so worried they plead with the program to take their children to Israel, with the promise they will emigrate later, he said. The parents of about 450 of the children have arrived in Israel and taken their sons or daughters out of the dormitories where they have been waiting while they get medical care and schooling.

Still, it is an extreme measure. Some medical experts question whether it is more harmful to separate children -- some as young as 6-- from their parents than to leave them in their homes.

"I don't think we can wait until scientists come to conclusions about it," said Mr. Raichik. "Even if the danger is less than 100 percent, we can't endanger children's lives. What are we waiting for?"

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