FUKUSHIMA – With almost 2½ years having passed since the Fukushima No. 1 plant imploded, medical schools are seeking to improve the treatment of people exposed to the radiation spewed by the wrecked reactors.
Makiko Orita, a 26-year-old Nagasaki University graduate student, is in the vanguard of the pursuit, serving on a one-year program as an adviser for evacuees who returned to Kawauchi in Fukushima Prefecture.
The village was completely evacuated after the March 2011 quake and tsunami ripped into the No. 1 power plant, causing three reactors to suffer core meltdowns.
After working as a nurse, Orita enrolled in Nagasaki University’s graduate school to study techniques for treating radiation exposure. She initially spent a month in Kawauchi from May last year as a health adviser under a program by the university to support areas caught up in the nuclear catastrophe.
This April, the university signed a cooperation agreement with Kawauchi and solicited applicants for the one-year program. Orita volunteered ahead of other students, aiming to use her firsthand experience and knowledge of the village.
Kawauchi Mayor Yuko Endo declared that evacuees could return to their homes in January 2012, but only around 500 of the village’s 3,000 or so inhabitants have since gone back.
While many obstacles are discouraging residents from returning, such as a shortage of job opportunities and the loss of a sense of community, health issues are at the forefront of their fears.
The villagers used to believe that nuclear power was entirely safe, as assured for decades by the central government, the local municipality and a host of experts, Endo said.
But now “anxieties remain” about atomic energy among the returnees, and “I want to ease residents’ concerns about their daily lives by patiently establishing relations with them,” Orita said.
As part of this initiative, Orita visited Yoshiyuki Yanai, 64, in late July and asked the local store owner about his health. “I feel a bit better today,” Yanai replied. “When I was an evacuee, I lost 17 kg because of the stress.”
“Please ask me if you have any questions,” Orita told him.
Nagasaki University, in line with other research institutes in the city as well as in Hiroshima, has accumulated substantial data on the effects of radiation of human health following the two A-bombings of August 1945.
“It’s not the (right) time any more for experts to address large numbers of residents” in areas exposed to radiation, “we (now) need to listen carefully to residents about the anxieties they have,” said Noboru Takamura, a professor at the university and an expert on the treatment of radiation injuries.
Meanwhile, Fukushima Medical University has launched a series of programs to help doctors and nurses to administer such treatments in an “independent” way.
Among them are drills based on various hypothetical nuclear plant crises.
During a recent exercise premised on an injured worker who had fallen from a building at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, doctors, nurses and medical students had to decide whether to prioritize treating his injuries or performing decontamination. When one of the participants was about to reuse a pair of scissors after cutting the worker’s clothes, an instructor warned that using it again would cause additional contamination.
Each drill is held for two to six days at the Education Center for Disaster Medicine established by Fukushima Medical University in May last year. The university has so far conducted seven drills attended by about 90 people in total.
Akemi Suzuki, 46, a nurse who works at a facility for the elderly, has taken part in the exercises and assists the medical university a few times a month when it holds meetings to advise people concerned about radiation while group municipal medical examinations are performed.
But the university has a long way to go before nurturing enough personnel to treat radiation injuries because “there’s a wide gap in interest in the field” among medical workers and students, said Jun Osugi, a respiratory surgeon who teaches at the prefectural university.
In fact, the university canceled a July 29 drill for students due to a shortage of participants.
Key nAs this shortage reflects a lack of readiness on the part of researchers and highlights other concerns in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it should be regarded “as a problem for all of Japan, rather than for Fukushima alone,” Kamiya said.