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by Laureen Fagan
19 September 2000
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- Babies born now in Chernobyl face as great a risk of radiation-related illnesses as the children who lived there when a nuclear reactor exploded in 1986, Israeli experts said on Tuesday.
Research conducted by Israel's Selikoff Centre for Environmental Health and Human Development showed that the longer children stayed in the Chernobyl area in Ukraine, the more likely they were to become ill.
The results of the study were released at a news conference by the Hassidic Jewish Chabad movement's Children of Chernobyl project, which marked the arrival of the 2,001st Jewish child it has brought to Israel from the region in the last 10 years.
"Not only are children at risk, but every day they stay in the Chernobyl area, that risk increases," said Jay Litvin, medical liasion for Chabad. "We literally consider ourselves to be in a race against time."
Most of the children brought to Israel from affected areas in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia arrive without their parents. But the movement said they were later reunited and families usually stayed in Israel.
Mikhail Gechtin sent his children on the first Chabad flight to Israel in 1990.
"We didn't know what happened," he said of the Chernobyl accident. "We were out parading for May Day and no one said anything."
Later, when Gechtin measured radiation around his home he was afraid for his family and sent his son and daughter to Israel and later joined them.
"I felt that I came from hell," Gechtin said. "For me, the sooner I got them out of there, the better."
The medical study found that infants and children in the Chernobyl area were as much at risk now as youngsters were at the time of the disaster because their rapidly developing cells were especially vulnerable to radiation.
"Radiation is very insidious," Litvin said. "It can enter the body, mutate cells and lie dormant, slowly doing its work."
The report studied 1,080 children brought to Israel since 1990.
Dr Yogesh Choudhri, chief epidemiologist for the study, found thyroid, liver and other diseases more prevalent than in unexposed children. A high incidence in breast cancer was also found in young women who were exposed to the radiation as girls.
The Chernobyl disaster exposed more than three million children to radiation.
A U.N. report in April said the worst health effects were yet to come and radiation levels would remain high until the middle of the century.