Chernobyl’s thyroid cancer patients

Print edition : May 17, 2013

MORE than a quarter of a century after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 26, 1986, many children and teenagers from Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia who developed “differentiated” thyroid cancer owing to radiation are in complete or near remission, according to a recent study published online on April 24 in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. Most of the patients had developed the papillary subtype of differentiated thyroid cancer. Although this cancer tends to be more aggressive in children than in adults, the study has found that nearly all the patients tracked in the study responded favourably to treatment.

“Even though some patients did not receive optimal treatment initially, the vast majority went into remission after receiving state-of-the-art radioiodine treatment and follow-up care,” said the study’s lead author, Christoph Reiners of the University of Würzburg, Germany. “Many patients recovered from advanced cancers. Of this group, 97 per cent had cancer spread to the lymph nodes, and 43 per cent had cancer metastasise in the lungs.”

The observational study followed the treatment and outcomes of 229 Belarusian children and adolescents who underwent surgery in Belarus and radioiodine therapy in Germany. The study participants were among the highest-risk young patients exposed to radiation from the accident. Despite the risk, 64 per cent of the patients are in complete remission and 30 per cent in nearly complete remission of their cancer. One patient died of lung fibrosis, a side effect of cancer treatment. Only two had cancer recurrences.

The findings suggest that victims of more recent nuclear accidents such as the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan face a lower risk of developing advanced-stage thyroid cancer. “Although people fear a similar thyroid cancer ‘epidemic’ will affect Japan, the quick actions taken to evacuate or shelter residents and ban potentially contaminated foods following the Fukushima accident greatly reduced the risks of children developing radiation-induced thyroid cancer,” Reiners said. “In addition, Chernobyl has taught us how important it is to have at-risk children and adolescents screened for thyroid cancer to catch any cases in their early stages. Because public health authorities are aware of the risks, screening programmes for children from the Fukushima area have already been initiated.”

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