In 2008, nearly 22% of adolescents in Belarus had chronic diseases and disabilities, according to a 2010 UNICEF report. Risk factors, according to this report, included smoking and using alcohol and drugs.
Experts say that what organizations such as Hope for Chenobyl's Child are doing to help children with medical problems -- providing assistance in Belarus, and flying them to the United States for medical respite -- is great. Several other organizations also operate in regions devastated by the Chernobyl accident, such as Chernobyl Children International, the Chernobyl Children's Project and Chernobyl Children's Trust.
But rather than radiation-related illness, according to the 2005 Chernobyl Forum report, "The most pressing health concerns for the affected areas thus lie in poor diet and lifestyle factors such as alcohol and tobacco use, as well as poverty and limited access to health care."
The cause of Chernobyl evokes greater sympathy from the public than some other causes might, Mettler said.
"It's a very unique, scary accident," he said. "Everybody in the world knows about it. But, if you were to say, 'I've got children starving in the Sudan,' people would go, 'huh, whatever.' It wouldn't get their attention."
Henning points to a 2009 report, published by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, rounding up evidence that radiation has had a lasting effect on the health of the population in contaminated areas. In Belarus, for instance, cancer morbidity increased 40% from 1990 to 2000, the report said, and girls age 10 to 14 born to irradiated parents had an increase in malignant and benign neoplasms.
Mettler counters this with the Chernobyl Forum report and a report from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, which both had stamps of approval from representatives of the governments of Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine.
The Chernobyl Forum report said that while increases in congenital malformations in children have been reported in Belarus since 1986, the rates are not related to radiation, and "may be the result of increased registration" -- i.e. more people reporting their family's health problems.
"The majority of the 'contaminated' territories are now safe for settlement and economic activity," although certain restrictions need to remain in place on the use of land in some areas, the report said.
More than 5 million people in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine living in "contaminated" areas received whole-body radiation from the accident, but in doses not much higher than the natural radiation in the environment, the report said.
Does that mean that a healthy person could safely move to an area that has been cordoned off for decades and not have an increased risk of cancer? Davis isn't so sure -- but said he believes it hasn't been studied extensively enough.
"Common sense would dictate that it's probably not a great idea to live in a highly contaminated area and eat produce produced in the fields that are contaminated, or be in constant exposure mode," Davis said.
A mental toll
Both international reports highlighted the mental health toll as well; the Chernobyl Forum report called this the greatest public health problem that the accident caused. More than 330,000 people were relocated from the hardest-hit areas, which was a "deeply traumatic experience" for many.
"There is no question that people who either are exposed to radiation or think they might have been, suddenly are very nervous, and every time something happens, they go, 'Oh my God, what is this? Do I have a problem?' And they dash off to the hospital," Mettler said.
Studies have shown that this population has a higher level of anxiety and are more likely to report that they have physical symptoms that they cannot explain, according to the Chernobyl Forum report. They're also more likely to say they are in poor health.
The report noted that as the media began to speak of "Chernobyl victims" and governments offered disaster-related benefits, "rather than perceiving themselves as 'survivors,' many of those people have come to think of themselves as helpless, weak and lacking control over their future."
Gorelik was not evacuated after Chernobyl. She grew up in the region of Gomel, the same area where she and Daniel live today. About a 20-minute drive away is the "Dead Zone," where entire villages have been abandoned since 1986.
Getting medical care
Gorelik and Daniel stayed with Henning's family in the Seattle area during part of the summer. They returned to Belarus at the beginning of August, Henning said. During their time in the Pacific Northwest, they saw the ocean, mountains and a rainforest, in addition to various doctors. Daniel put on 4.5 pounds during the six-week stay.
"Yulia and Daniel saw various doctors and it was determined that many of their health issues could be attributed to the poor nutrition that is so common in this area of Belarus," Henning said in an e-mail.
Among the nine children and two adults, including Gorelik, who spent this summer in the United States through Hope for Chernobyl's Child, a total of 47 cavities were filled, four wisdom teeth were pulled and 60 blood tests were taken, Henning said. The Belarusians gained a combined total of 26.5 pounds.
Gorelik told CNN in July that Hope for Chernobyl's Child has given her not only material help, but also mental support. The gratitude she feels toward the organization and her hosts is immeasurable, she says.
Reflecting on her situation, her words about lack of control are reminiscent of the Chernobyl Forum Report: "If you are living in bad conditions, sometimes, you feel like you are alone. You don't have control of your life. You don't have any support. You don't have any hope, maybe. There is only one hope, to God. But if you meet some people who can give you their hands, and their help, it is making you stronger, it is making you happy, really happy. That's why I'm grateful with all my soul."
Gorelik and Daniel left for their long journey back to Belarus on August 5, including a 13-hour layover in Frankfurt. Henning and colleagues arranged for them, and the others in the Hope for Chernobyl's Child group, to rest in a lounge at the airport.