Bucking fears, Israeli Chernobyl survivors have normal hospitalization rates

Israel’s population of Chernobyl survivors is hospitalized with surprising infrequency, new research indicates.

In the aftermath of the disaster, which took place exactly 35 years ago, almost 200,000 people who lived in affected areas immigrated to Israel – and many doctors expected them to need disproportionate hospital care for life.

But compared to other immigrants from the former Soviet Union (FSU), their level of hospital usage is broadly similar, academics from Ben Gurion University of the Negev have revealed after monitoring hospitalizations among Chernobyl survivors in southern Israel for years.

In general, Israel’s FSU immigrants make disproportionately heavy use of hospitals, which is thought to reflect the impact of poor healthcare under the Soviet regime. However, Chernobyl survivors show no unusual highs compared to the rest of that demographic, either in terms of days spent in hospital or the number of hospitalizations.

A worker wearing a protective overall and mask is seen amid boxes full with contaminated vegetables on the landfill in Berlin-Wannsee on May 9, 1986. Vegetables with low radiation were being stored at this landfill following a decision of the local authorities in Berlin which banned the sale of contaminated leafy vegetables due to the recent nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Soviet Union. (AP Photo/Rainer Klostermeier/str)

They are more likely to head to doctors for specific issues, including concerns about possible cancerous growths, but the researchers wrote after comparing Chernobyl survivors to other immigrants from the FSU that they “cannot conclude that the Chernobyl exposure had an overall effect on hospitalization utilization.”

Furthermore, while they have an unusually high need for fertility treatment, there is no higher incidence of stillbirth or other problems with babies at birth — even low birth weight — in comparison to the rest of the FSU immigrant population or the Israeli-born population. These findings come as British researchers concluded that radiation damage caused to people at Chernobyl isn’t passed to their children.

Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, center, US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher, center right, Poland’s Ambassador to Belarus Artur Michalski, center left, and U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania Robert S. Gilchrist, right, pause after laying a wreath during the ceremony to commemorate victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster at the memorial to Chernobyl workers and firefighters in Vilnius, Lithuania, April 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

“It seems that those who survived and emigrated to Israel don’t have as bad health as I would have expected,” Prof. Eyal Sheiner told The Times of Israel. He added that his research showed that they are in relatively good health — part of which reflects Israel’s high standard of medical care — but need vigilance from doctors.

Sheiner, vice dean of health sciences at Ben Gurion and chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, thinks that the fertility aspect of the research, in particular, is cause for optimism. He noted that there were major concerns soon after the disaster about the impact on reproduction and ability to bear healthy children, and commented: “Our research is, in a sense, reassuring. Of course, things have long-term consequences but the actual risk to people we monitored who survived is very low.”

Prof. Eyal Sheiner, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, who led the study. (courtesy of Eyal Sheiner)

Sheiner and other Ben Gurion University researchers documented their findings in two peer-reviewed studies, involving 1,300 Chernobyl survivors in total. One is soon to be published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health and the other, focused on fertility, has appeared in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.

While general hospitalization rates aren’t higher among Chernobyl survivors, this population is more likely to turn to doctors to examine an abnormal and possibly cancerous growth, known as a neoplasm. Compared to native Israelis, FSU immigrants in general are 31% more likely to report a neoplasm and Chernobyl survivors are 65% more likely if from high-exposure areas and 77% more likely if from low-exposure areas.

Sheiner noted that these statistics cover suspicious growths that may or may not turn out to be cancerous and acknowledged that the heightened figure for Chernobyl survivors may in part reflect heightened vigilance. He could not obtain statistics for actual cancer incidence.

In comparison with native Israelis, FSU immigrants in general are 24% more likely to go to the hospital with endocrine issues. But Chernobyl survivors from both high-exposure or low-exposure areas are 34% more likely.

When it comes to eye problems, FSU immigrants are 25% more likely to arrive at the hospital with such issues than people born in Israel. Chernobyl survivors are 48% more likely if from high-exposure areas and 41% more likely if from low-exposure areas.

Prof. Julie Cwikel of Ben Gurion University (Dani Machlis/Ben Gurion University)

The results are a reminder that “those exposed should be vigilant about regular medical checkups,” said lead researcher Prof. Julie Cwikel, adding that they should also encourage doctors to include questions about exposure to the Chernobyl explosion when taking medical histories.

Fertility treatment was used by 8.2% of high-exposure women and 9.3% of low-exposure women, compared to 5% of FSU immigrants, and anemia was more common. But recurrent miscarriage, experienced by 4.1% of Chernobyl-surviving women, was actually higher among the general FSU female population, at 5%. “Once the Chernobyl-exposed women achieved pregnancy, its course and outcome was comparable to the comparison groups,” the research stated.

An aerial photo of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant taken two or three days after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion. (AP/Volodymir Repik)

Sheiner said: “We recognize that more fertility treatment was needed, but it’s not like we found a higher rate of stillbirth. People conceived and the outcome was fine, so everything should be put into perspective.”

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