TARARA (Cuba): At a beach resort near Havana, children with bald heads and skin lesions splash with joy in the warm Caribbean sea. They are victims of radiation fallout from the worst civilian disaster of the nuclear age — the 1986 power plant explosion in Chernobyl — and are in Cuba for treatment.

“I want to stay here,” says Sveta, a blue-eyed 15-year-old from Ukraine’s capital Kiev whose eyelashes are beginning to grow back.

Since 1990, communist Cuba has treated free of charge 18,000 Ukrainian children for hair loss, skin disorders, cancer, leukaemia and other illnesses attributed to the radioactivity unleashed by the reactor meltdown years before they were born.

Up to 800 children travel to the Tarara Paediatric Hospital each year for at least two months, accompanied by parents or tutors. Some stay for years. They live in bungalows built as beach houses by rich Cubans before Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.

Most get treatment for hair loss, spending 15 minutes a day under an infra-red light after a lotion made from human placenta is applied to their heads. Hair grows back in 60 per cent of cases, said Dr. Giraldo Hernandez.

Many children suffer from vitiligo, a patchy loss of skin pigmentation, which is treated with another placenta-based lotion and lots of sunlight on the beach. Psoriasis is also common.

More serious cases of cancer require chemotherapy or surgery.

Six leukaemia patients have received bone marrow transplants in Cuba.

While some disorders, such as the 30-fold increase in thyroid cancer among Ukrainian children, are directly linked to the Chernobyl accident, scientists do not know whether hair loss is caused by radioactive pollution or post-traumatic stress.

Recreation in the tropical sun is as much a part of the cure as the medical treatment, Cuban doctors say.—Reuters

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