In any public health emergency, pregnant women and their unborn children are often most vulnerable. In this week’s blog, we look back at Chernobyl to reflect on the lessons learned. While human error played a large part in what happened at Chernobyl, the flawed design of the RBMK reactor showed how neglecting safety protocols can cause devastating consequences. The disaster drove home the continuing need for better safety standards at nuclear power plants. Perhaps one of the most harrowing moments in HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries is the death of Lyudmilla Ignatenko’s child, only four hours after she was born. This is the true story of what happened to Lyudmilla and her husband, Vasily Ignatenko, one of the firefighters who first responded to the explosion at the nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986. Vasily spent much of his last weeks with his wife at his side. Despite warnings from doctors to refrain from contact and keep their visits short, Lyudmilla refused to do either. Ultimately, it would be her daughter that suffered from her mother’s actions, as Natashenka absorbed all the radiation from the encounters with her father. According to Live Science, “While there may still be additional cases of cancer that emergency workers, evacuees, and residents may experience throughout their lifetimes, the known overall rate of cancer deaths and other health effects directly related to Chernobyl's radiation leak is lower than was initially feared.”
Despite Gorbachev’s implementation of Perestroika and Glasnost in February of 1986, the Soviet Union disclosed little to no information to the public about the true severity of the accident. The result was “radiophobia” among the public, and a complete lack of trust in authorities to reveal the scale of the disaster. Even for women whose husbands had not been at the scene immediately following the explosion, there was a spike in abortions out of fear that their newborns would develop birth defects. Alongside the decision by thousands of women to end their pregnancies was the delaying of planned pregnancies as well as more demand for prenatal screenings. However, women were not making these decisions on their own necessarily. Doctors all over Eastern Europe encouraged pregnant women to have abortions with the same fears in mind. The government too, was adamant on ending pregnancies within the exclusion zone. The truth was that the majority of these women weren’t exposed to enough radiation to cause any problems to their unborn children. The misinformation spread across Europe. Countries such as Greece and Italy, and as far as Sweden, experienced rising rates of abortions. Radiation Answers cites that there were 2,500 abortions performed in Greece.
The official number of deaths in Russia today remains at the same number that was officially released by the Soviet Union, 30. The death toll remains disputed to this day, with estimates ranging from 4,000 deaths to around 90,000. Misinformation spread like wildfire after Chernobyl, proving detrimental to mothers and their children. Lives were ended out of fear, with little thought of maternal health and well being.
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