Thyroid consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear accident

F Pacini, T Vorontsova, E Molinaro, E Shavrova, L Agate, E Kuchinskaya, R Elisei, E P Demidchik, A Pinchera
Acta Paediatrica. Supplement 1999, 88 (433): 23-7
It is well recognized that the use of external irradiation of the head and neck to treat patients with various non-thyroid disorders increases their risk of developing papillary thyroid carcinoma years after radiation exposure. An increased risk of thyroid cancer has also been reported in survivors of the atomic bombs in Japan, as well as in Marshall Island residents exposed to radiation during the testing of hydrogen bombs. More recently, exposure to radioactive fallout as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident has clearly caused an enormous increase in the incidence of childhood thyroid carcinoma in Belarus, Ukraine, and, to a lesser extent, in the Russian Federation, starting in 1990. When clinical and epidemiological features of thyroid carcinomas diagnosed in Belarus after the Chernobyl accident are compared with those of naturally occurring thyroid carcinomas in patients of the same age group in Italy and France, it becomes apparent that the post-Chernobyl thyroid carcinomas were much less influenced by gender, virtually always papillary (solid and follicular variants), more aggressive at presentation and more frequently associated with thyroid autoimmunity. Gene mutations involving the RET proto-oncogene, and less frequently TRK, have been shown to be causative events specific for papillary cancer. RET activation was found in nearly 70% of the patients who developed papillary thyroid carcinomas following the Chernobyl accident. In addition to thyroid cancer, radiation-induced thyroid diseases include benign thyroid nodules, hypothyroidism and autoimmune thyroiditis, with or without thyroid insufficiency, as observed in populations after environmental exposure to radioisotopes of iodine and in the survivors of atomic bomb explosions. On this basis, the authors evaluated thyroid autoimmune phenomena in normal children exposed to radiation after the Chernobyl accident. The results demonstrated an increased prevalence of circulating thyroid antibodies not associated with significant thyroid dysfunction. This finding is consistent with the short period of follow-up, but it is highly likely that these children will develop clinical thyroid autoimmune diseases in the future. Therefore, screening programmes for this at-risk population should focus, not only on the detection of thyroid nodules and cancer, but also on the development of thyroid autoimmune diseases.

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