IAŞI, Romania — Voichiţa Mogoş is pointing at a graph, the same graph she uses to teach medical students about the effects of radiation. It shows the rising incidence of thyroid cancer rates in Belarusian children and teenagers, a brutal legacy of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The lines shoot up the graph like ski slopes.
“This is the fear,” she says. “There are dreadful events happening in our proximity. It’s normal for a responsible government to try and protect and overprotect its population.”
A victim of the Chernobyl disaster. PHOTO: ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP via Getty Images)
A few miles away, a factory has finished making 30 million iodine pills to protect people against the potential effects of radiation should the worst happen and Russia use nuclear weapons in its war against Ukraine. Moscow has said clearly that all options are on the table, sparking fear in countries that border Ukraine, which still have clear memories of the meltdown at Ukraine’s Chernobyl power plant in 1986.
This state-run pharmaceutical company has rushed the production of radiation pills in response to the war, prioritising pregnant women and children who are most vulnerable to the effects of radiation.
By giving people a dose of iodine just before or just after a nuclear explosion, these pills help protect people from the radioactive iodine released during a nuclear fallout. Preventative iodine doses stop the thyroid gland, which absorbs most of the radiation from any blast, from taking in the radioactive iodine that causes the kinds of thyroid cancers that have devastated nearby populations. These pills don’t protect against other dangers of a nuclear blast, like thermal or physical injuries from the explosion itself or radiation to other areas of the body.
On 6 March, Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă admitted on television that the country didn’t have a large enough stock of pills, which have a shelf life of five years. Just a few weeks later, it looks like Romania is now ready to administer the pills to its entire population.
“The problem for authorities is when to authorise the ingestion of the pills,” Voichiţa explains. “More than 90% of the population which ingests the day before a fallout will be completely protected. If that happens 8 hours after inhalation, only 50% will be protected. And after 24 hours, only 10% will be protected.”
It means that whether there is warning or not, Romanians would quickly be able to prepare if there were an attack.
The dosage is crucial – particularly as many Romanians have spent the past few weeks stockpiling online, as have people in countries further away, such as Norway and Belgium.
Voichiţa warned that websites selling iodine pills are not being honest about how big a dose you really need to be protected from a nuclear blast.
Inspecting a packet of some of the first pills that come up when you type ‘iodine pills’ into Romanian Google, she said: “This has 600 micrograms. We need 1,000 micrograms. This pill does not have enough in it.
“A lot of drugs are available online and they do not know what they are buying. I do not advise it - talk to your doctor.”
On top of the lack of information regarding pills online from the authorities, there has also been concern about how successful messaging may be around how to administer them, and who exactly will be distributing them.
The Romanian Health Minister suggested on Monday that family doctors could be used to safely distribute and explain these pills.
But a doctor in Bucharest told local press: “Family doctors are not pharmacies! On Monday, we had 60 consultations. When are we supposed to distribute pills?”