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Chernobyl survivors urged to get health tests

Edward Atbashyan was a young soldier in the Russian Army when an explosion ripped through the Chernobyl nuclear plant on April 26, 1986.

As radioactive material poured into the air, he helped evacuate the thousands of people living near the plant. He spent more than three weeks at the site.

Two decades later, the aftermath of the nuclear disaster still lingers for Atbashyan in the insidious threat of thyroid cancer.

"I have always known that I potentially might have a future problem," said Atbashyan, 42, who now lives in Bellmore, Long Island.

Now a unique effort is underway to help Atbashyan and 200,000 other Chernobyl survivors living in the New York area, including a large number in Brooklyn.

Project Chernobyl, championed by a coalition of community groups and health professionals, aims to provide early diagnosis and treatment for at-risk members of the Russian community.

"We are trying to develop a system where the right people are getting the right test," said Dr. Igor Branovan, of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, who is spearheading the effort. He is working to expand the program to Los Angeles and Chicago.

Over the last decade, physicians at New York Eye and Ear have noticed a high incidence of thyroid abnormalities in Russian immigrants from Belarus, Ukraine and southwestern Russia. A recent study showed the number of abnormalities was nearly triple that of the average New Yorker.

"While other incidents could be attributed to it, we decided the most likely source was some sort of exposure," Branovan said.

Thyroid cancer typically takes about 20 years to develop, and medical experts in Russia have long been expecting a spike. So, the trend among Russian immigrants in New York is not surprising, local health experts said.

With the backing of Assembly members Helene Weinstein (D-Flatbush) and Alec Brook-Krasny (D-Coney Island, Dyker Heights), Branovan helped secure $535,000 in state funding to kick off the project.

The five-year plan is to launch in July with television and newspaper ads, advising Chernobyl survivors to call a special hotline.

Callers meeting certain criteria will be tested at a participating neighborhood medical center and be alerted to their potential risk for developing thyroid cancer.

The project calls for the involvement of 12 to 15 medical centers citywide, with at least half of them in Brooklyn. The goal is to test 50,000 people each year.

"The likelihood is that most people will not develop cancer," Branovan said, "but an unfortunate few will get it."

Roza Nepomnashi, 53, who emigrated from Gomel, a city in Belarus heavily contaminated by the radiation from Chernobyl, already overcame thyroid cancer. But she is anxious to have her two children tested.

"I am scared for my kids because now we have a family history. I will get my kids in the program, just in case," said Nepomnashi, of Staten Island.

As for Atbashyan, having already overcome health problems stemming from the nuclear disaster, he is prepared to tackle any new ones head on.

"A lot of people are suffering directly or indirectly from this tragedy. So, this project is a great thing for people," Atbashyan said.



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