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These birth defects might be linked with radiation from the Chernobyl disaster 30 years ago

Courtney Verrill
Chernobyl birth defects

The scientific debate is still ongoing over whether congenital birth defects can be linked to radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that happened 30 years ago.

Physicians in the region have reported a sharp rise in birth defects there since 1986. A 2010 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found a correlation between the presence of hazardous levels of strontium-90 -- a radioactive element produced by nuclear fission -- and dramatically high rates of certain congenital birth defects.

Belarus, whose border with Ukraine is just four miles from the Chernobyl power plant, consumed an estimated 70% of the nuclear fallout. A study by UNICEF suggested that more than 20% of adolescent children in Belarus suffer from disabilities caused by birth defects.

Getty photographer Sean Gallup recently visited care centres for children with disabilities in Belarus. Below, see Gallup's images of the children living in these facilities.

More than 5% of strontium-90 was released during the Chernobyl explosion. Although that percentage might not seem very high, strontium-90 is the most dangerous component of the radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion.

Vesnova Home for Invalid Children is a facility working to help children whose lives have been severely affected by the Chernobyl disaster. More than 170 children and teenagers who were born with severe birth defects receive care here.

Chernobyl Children International (CCI) is a non-profit organisation that helps the children and families who continue to be affected by the disaster. They work closely with the facilities in Belarus.

Source: CCI

The children at the facility were born with many different disabilities, including neurological difficulties and heart conditions.

There are different facilities throughout Belarus for children with disabilities to get proper care. Children's House Number 1 is a facility for young children with severe disabilities in Minsk, Belarus.

Congenital heart defects (CHD) are common among these children. Below, four-year-old Rostislav gets a check-up before undergoing open-heart surgery to correct two holes and a faulty valve in his heart.

CCI works with the Cardiac Alliance, a US-based group that sends surgical teams that specialize in treating CHD in children to countries all over the world. Without CCI or Cardiac Alliance, Rostislav's surgery would not have been possible.

Vasilii is 15 years old and was born with severe disabilities that have caused him to be the size of a small child.

Three-month-old Ruslan suffers from CHD. He has already had open heart surgery to correct his birth defects.

Two-year-old Nadya has been diagnosed with hydrocephaly, a disorder characterised by a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid (which, in healthy people, typically surrounds the brain and spinal cord) in the brain, which creates potentially harmful pressure on brain tissues and can lead to problems with walking, impaired bladder control, progressive mental impairment, and dementia.

Microcephaly, a birth defect where a baby's head is smaller than expected when compared to babies of the same sex and age, is also more common in children around the region than in children from other areas.

Antonina is almost 17 years old and was diagnosed with epilepsy and microcephaly when she was born. The two conditions can be linked.

Sergei and Ina Chalyadinsky have three children, one of which has a severe disability. Liza, age 6, was born with a tumour on her head, severe brain damage, cerebral palsy, a very weak immune system, and near blindness.

Karina is five years old and was diagnosed with Dandy-Walker syndrome -- a congenital birth malformation of the brain -- which causes an enlarged skull, deformed limbs, and dysfunctional cognitive and motor skills.

Maria, age nine, was born with microcephaly and has dysfunctional motor skills. She uses a wheelchair and has limited movement.

One-year-old Viktoriya was born with microcephaly as well. She also requires an artificial lung ventilation machine to breathe.

Katya is five years old and is the size of an infant. She was born with microcephaly and convulsive syndrome, a condition where her body shakes uncontrollably, much like a seizure. These two conditions may be linked.

Roman is 17 years old and was born with multiple birth defects that have caused him to have dysfunctional motor skills.