Chernobyl Children in Cuba: an Untold Story (Part I)

Tarara, children of Chernobyl. Photo Liborio Noval

By way of introduction…

One day in 2011, Peruvian visual artist Sonia Cunliffe visited the beach resort of Tarará. She noticed bald children bathing on the beach. She asked who they were and they answered her: the Chernobyl children. She was shocked, but at that time she knew nothing more. Then in 2015, by chance we met and she asked me if I knew about that story. I told her what I remembered. She insisted on wanting to make an exhibition on the subject and asked me to collaborate with the research. I hesitantly accepted. Today I am infinitely grateful to her. My doctor brother gave me the first contact: Doctor Julio Medina and he led me to other doctors, translator patients, research centers, the Cuban Radiation Hygiene Center and hospitals; the archives of the Granma and Juventud Rebelde newspapers opened boxes and newspapers for me; colleagues gave me film archives and so from door to door and for a year I completed the research that served as the basis for the exhibition project that has been successful in more than one country; one of the most beautiful professional experiences of my life.

This is where the story begins…

Some years after the explosion of the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, the then USSR asked the world for help to mitigate the impact of the nuclear explosion on its population, mainly children.

Cuba showed its immediate willingness. However, this was not the case in many countries of the developed world, whose aid was generally meager compared to the demand and urgency of the catastrophe.

One day in 1989, the then Secretary General of the Komsomol or Communist Youth in Ukraine, Anatoli Matvienko, at an official reception addressed the Cuban Consul Sergio Lopez and expressed his concern for the state of Ukrainian children after the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Lilia Pilitay told journalist Julio Morejon of Juventud Rebelde in Havana that after consultations with the country’s leadership, specifically with Fidel for the delicate task, the whole process of what would later become the humanitarian program was immediately triggered. In fact, due to Sergius’ quick management, the phrase “Work like Sergius” became popular in the Ukrainian Komsomol.

And according to Dr. Julio Medina, who was Director of the program for most of the 21 years of its duration, the Cuban Ministry of Public Health created a commission of specialists in hematology, oncology, endocrinology, clinical and other specialties, which he sent to Ukraine. Once there, in contact with the Ukrainian health authorities and with the help of the Komsomol, the doctors began to explore the situation, organized consultations and began work on the ground with patients in need of urgent medical attention. The sickest was the first group selected.

The first flight to Cuba was organized with 139 very sick children, mainly with hematological oncology problems. They arrived in Havana on March 29, 1990 at 8:46 p.m. on an Aeroflot flight. Fidel himself received them on the stairs of the plane and the pediatric hospitals Juan Manuel Márquez, William Soler and the Institute of Hematology were already prepared to receive them. That same night, the preparation of a program capable of attending thousands of children from the most affected regions in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine began.

How the program for the care of Chernobyl children in Cuba was organized

In 1990 Dr. Carlos Dotres was the Director of the William Soler Pediatric Hospital. When the hemorrhagic dengue epidemic occurred in Cuba in 1981, which had a high impact on the child population, Dr. Carlos Dotres was instrumental in organizing a massive care program for child victims of the epidemic.  In the city of the José Martí Pioneers in Tarará, 75,000 Cuban children were treated with the purpose of providing them with immunological treatments with interferon. Based on this experience, Dr. Dotres was asked to contribute to the creation of a comprehensive program capable of treating 10,000 children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the same Tarará resort east of Havana.

The creation of the program took into account not only sick children, but also their presence in contaminated places with significant impacts on water, food and the environment in general. Three republics of the former USSR were the most affected due to their proximity to the catastrophe area: Russia, Belarus and Ukraine; mainly the latter, with the characteristic that there was little iodine in the water consumed by its population. Thus, the thyroids – especially in the child population – were glands eager to consume the radioactive iodine released into the environment by the nuclear explosion.  Thus, it was predicted that thyroid-related diseases would be the most prevalent over the years. Subsequent care confirmed this medical assertion.

From this starting point, Cuban interdisciplinary teams began to study and investigate a subject on which Cuba had no experience. Among the conclusive elements for the care of these patients was the fact that if the population could be taken out of a contaminated environment to a clean environment, they had the possibility of recovering more quickly.

Dr. Carlos Dotres, who was Cuba’s Minister of Public Health between 1995 and 2002, confirms that the program was designed with two general objectives: to treat children who became ill as a result of the catastrophe and, in turn, to bring children to a clean area where they could be observed and studied in order to offer a care design that would lead to medical follow-up in their countries of origin.

The program also had other objectives such as clinically characterizing all the children; they were classified according to where they came from by Cuban doctors and doctors from the countries involved. They were divided into four groups: the very sick who came directly to hospitals and medical and research institutes. A second group took into account the high psychological impact that resulted in psychosomatic diseases such as psoriasis, alopecia and others. The third group had no complex symptoms and the fourth group was classified as relatively healthy children.

Initially, hospital bed conditions were created in Tarará for 350 children.  Specialized areas were established according to the diseases they presented and doctors and nurses stayed with them permanently. Specialized stomatological services were also designed based on hypotheses about the incidence of radiation in the proliferation of caries and other oral diseases; a high index of children presented caries. All of them had their radiation levels measured at the Cuban Center for Radiation Hygiene and, based on the results, it was determined whether genetic studies should be carried out. In Tarará, a sector was created for children who required placental Histotherapy treatment for hair loss and psoriasis, which was directly directed by Dr. Carlos Manuel Miyares Cao, creator of a score of products to treat these pathologies and others such as vitiligo from the human placenta. A psychological care program was also implemented for the children.

In each group that arrived, doctors and teachers came from their countries, because in Tarará the conditions were also organized for them to continue their studies.  For every ten or fifteen children there was a guide and the sickest ones were accompanied by their mother or father. Close to the hospitals where the sickest children were hospitalized, homes were set up so that their families could stay nearby, especially those who remained hospitalized for long periods of time, even years. This program had different stages and was conceived and carried out for 21 years free of charge.

Source: Cuba en Resumen