Saturday, October 29, 2005

Too Horrible For Hollywood Halloween

Earlier today, I decided I needed a break and turned on the TV. Flipping channels, I came across a documentary on HBO called Chernobyl Heart. It's about the health of children in Belarus, and how they have been effected by the aftermath of Chernobyl. The film won the 2005 Academy Award for best short documentary, but this was the first time I'd seen it.

I was nine years old in 1986, when the Chernobyl reactor disaser happened. About the same age as a lot of the kids in the documentary. The Chernobyl plant is in Ukraine, but it's in the far southern part of Ukraine, and the former Soviet Republic of Belarus is downwind. In the end, Belarus got a lot more radiation from the disaster.

A few statistics: Belarus has about 10 million people. 22% of its land area is considered too contaminated to live in. In 1986, there were 2.2 million people living in that area. Today there are still 1.5 million people living in the contaminated zone. Today, in all of Belarus, 15-20% of babies are born healthy. Think about that. 80-85%* of children are BORN with a serious health problem. This figure does not include diseases like thyroid cancer (now common) which do not develop until years later. (See the end of this post for sources of this information)

It's Halloween weekend. I like horror movies, and I've been using Tivo to record a lot of them over the last couple weeks. None of the monster movies that Hollywood has cooked up come close to the horror I felt as the camera crew in Chernobyl Heart just walked through the pediatric ward in a hospital in Gomel, the most affected region of Belarus.

We watch horror movies because at some level it is fun to be scared when we know there is no real danger. Horror movies give audiences a jolt of adrenaline, of excitement, of fear that that most people do not experience in their everyday lives. But almost always, by the end of the movie, the monster is destroyed, the virtuous have been saved, and the danger has been purged from the world(At least until the sequel).

Hollywood monsters may crawl out of some dark, hidden corner of the world, be created by a mad scientist, or be remmnants of some ancient, forgotten evil. But the monster, the freak, always comes from some place, some situation beyond the boundaries of the everyday world. The monsters come out of the darkness, and the heroes push them back in, out of the circle of light that is cizilization.

In Belarus, the monster attacked in 1986. The monster is buried in a giant concrete sarcophagus. (By the way, the sarcophagus was designed to last 20-30 years, and built in a hurry. That was 19 years ago.) But the monster's curse still haunts the people of Belarus. Fear lurks not in the haunted castle, but in the maternity ward, in a country where 3 of 4 children are born with a serious medical problem.

There ARE heroes in this story. The staff of the Chernobyl Children's Project, who raise money for pediatric care in Belarus and try to get children out of the most radioactive zones. Dr. William Novick, whose foundation sends surgical teams to Belarus to perform heart operations on children with techniques and equipment not available in the former USSR. And the thousands of doctors, nurses, and caregivers in Belaruse's orphanages and hospitals, who fight an endless losing battle every day. Their battle will not be finished at the end of a two hour movie. It will not be finished for generations.

Chernobyl Heart is currently in rotation on HBO and HBO Signature.

*Statistics math corrected 10/30. See comments.

HBO: Chernobyl Heart documentary site
Chernobyl Children's Project International
International Children's Heart Foundation International NGO site
Wikipedia: Belarus


Blogger Wurm42 said...

BTW, the title Chernobyl Heart comes from a pediatric heart condition that has become common in Belarus since 1986. Children are born with a very thin wall in the heart muscle, which often has microscopic holes that get larger as the child grows.
The holes can be patched with surgery. Do you think Belarus has enough pediatric cardiac surgeons or facilities for them? Nope, didn't think so.

I have my differences with the United States' current administration, but I am very, very lucky to have been born in America. I don't remember that often enough.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Kafaleni said...

Wow, Wurm.. that's scary. It's good to know these things, though. BTW, aren't you some kind of math professor or something?

Today, in all of Belarus, 15-20% of babies are born healthy. Think about that. 75-80% of children are BORN with a serious health problem

I think this should be 80-85%. But maybe maths is different in the southern hemisphere.

4:08 AM  
Blogger Wurm42 said...

LT, you are correct. The number should be 80-85%. Original post has been updated to reflect this.

However, note that I'm in arts, not maths. Strictly a right-brained field. Well, except when I do lighting design- that's all trigonometry.

Wait, I'm just digging myself in deeper here. Never mind.

10:03 PM  

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