While memories of the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl have faded in the international community, continued assistance is still needed for the disaster-hit region, according to the head of the United Nations relief program still dealing with the tragedy.

The scars of the catastrophe still linger in every aspect of daily life in the affected area, which covers Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, said Dusan Zupka, Chernobyl Programme manager of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in an interview with The Japan Times.

A 155,000-sq.-km area, home to 7.1 million people, was contaminated with hazardous levels of radiation following an explosion on April 26, 1986, at a reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, according to the OCHA. The disaster was the world’s worst nuclear accident.

While it has caused serious health problems for people in the contaminated area — thyroid cancer being one of the most visible — the accident also had a grave impact on the region’s environment, economy and society, the Slovakian said.

Having frequently visited the area since he assumed the post almost two years ago, Zupka said the accident still casts a shadow over the region’s economy, especially in the sectors of agriculture and forestry, and many people have resorted to drugs.

“Nowadays, the psychological problem is very important,” Zupka said, adding that the U.N. operates several socio-psychological rehabilitation centers in the area.

Even though the three countries have made great efforts, allocating large portions of their national budgets to deal with the Chernobyl disaster, their troubled economic situation makes international cooperation indispensable for relief activities, he said.

The Geneva-based U.N. office has given most urgent status to nine projects, including modernization of a Belarus hospital and ultrasound screening of 500,000 Russian children, which requires a total of $9.5 million.

However, only about $2 million has been financed so far, Zupka said. “The international community is losing interest (in the accident), which occurred more than 14 years ago.”

Zupka, who is currently visiting Japan to attend a health symposium, is scheduled to meet Foreign Minister Yohei Kono and representatives of the Japan International Cooperation Agency today “to explain that the problem is still serious.”

The Japanese government and organizations such as JICA have made great contributions to the relief effort, he said, noting the value of technologies of a country with experience in nuclear disasters.

He said, however, that there is much more to be done, especially for what he referred to as “human development issues.”

Such issues include providing victims with “good psychological treatment, good economic possibilities and good social conditions,” he said, adding that he hopes to secure some resources from the Japanese government and organizations to mobilize programs in these areas.

Although fresh emergencies requiring the support and attention of the international community continue to crop up, Zupka said a key task he faces is to keep the eyes of the world on Chernobyl.

“We have yet to know the full consequence of the accident. The health conditions of 3 million children must be closely monitored for at least 15 more years.”

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