Friday, September 4, 1998 Published at 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK
Chernobyl children face immune system disease
Chernobyl: scientists are discovering the long-term health impact
Young people exposed to the fallout of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster have suffered damage to their immune systems, scientists have discovered.
An article in the medical journal The Lancet reports that young men and women from Belarus who, as children or unborn babies, were exposed to radioactive iodine released during the 1986 disaster have developed rogue antibodies.
These rogue antibodies attack the body in what is known as an autoimmune response. They fail to recognise the body's own tissue and treat it as an enemy in the same way that normal antibodies attack foreign infections.
The research suggests that in this case the rogue antibodies may attack the thyroid, the gland which controls the body's metabolism and regulates physical and chemical changes in the body.
Such an attack may lead to a condition known as hypothyroidism which causes weight gain, lethargy and drowsiness in sufferers.
Italian scientists carried out tests on the thyroids of young people from a village heavily contaminated with radioactive fallout, and from a second village that escaped with negligible contamination.
The researchers found no significant differences in thyroid function between the two groups, but found that youngsters from the contaminated village were five times more likely to have developed anti-thyroid gland antibodies.
Boys and girls were just as likely to have developed the rogue antibodies until the age of 13, after which the prevalence among girls increased significantly.
Chernobyl has previously been linked to an increase in childhood thyroid cancer, and to retarded mental development among children.