Women of vision

Fukushima's Medical Front Line

    A female doctor who is on the medical front lines in Fukushima says the health conditions of many evacuees there have been deteriorating.

    More than 5 years have passed since a powerful earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear crisis in the prefecture, and people are worried about the effects of radiation.

    Sae Ochi says chronic diseases are on the rise, but they're linked to lifestyle changes.

    Ochi works as a physician in this hospital in Soma city, about 40 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant.

    "I see more and more people in Fukushima with chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes," she says.

    About 88,000 people in the prefecture are still unable to return home because of the 2011 disaster.

    Minoru Harada, who suffers from diabetes, says that since he moved into temporary housing he's become so dizzy he's unable to walk straight.

    "I'm becoming weak because I don't exercise," he says.

    Ochi studied public health in Britain and she learned that stress from changes in a person's living environment significantly affects people's susceptibility to chronic diseases.

    In 2013, Ochi decided to work at the hospital in Soma. She'd learned about an increasing number of chronic cases in the disaster-affected prefecture and wanted to help.

    "I've become more conscious of people's social backgrounds. Many different factors are at play in the emergence of diseases. Sedentary lifestyles are one cause, but health problems due to social factors, such as living in temporary housing, can also lead an individual to develop diabetes," Ochi says.

    In Fukushima, the total number of inpatients and outpatients has increased by 24,000 since the disaster struck. But the number remains nearly unchanged in Iwate, which was hit by the tsunami but not the nuclear disaster.

    "Due to fear of radiation, people's diet and exercise routines have changed a lot. I think these factors have caused more problems for people in Fukushima than in other areas," Ochi says.

    Akio and Nobuko Nakajima have been living in temporary housing for more than 5 years. The couple lost their jobs due to the nuclear accident. They now live on compensation from the plant's operator, TEPCO.

    Akio's blood pressure used to be 120 at most, but he's been diagnosed with hypertension.

    "My maximum reaches 150. The reading sometimes hits that figure even if I take medicine," he says.

    The couple was originally living in Iitate village, which was highly contaminated by radiation. They visit their home there every other day, since officials have eased the evacuation order on the area. High levels of radiation keep them from settling back home though.

    They used to raise about 30 cattle, and were busy taking care of them from morning till night.

    "I was so tired at night, but I miss those days. That's all gone now," Akio says. "We'll have no income even if we return home. I'm so worried that I can't sleep at night. My blood pressure will stay high."

    Ochi organizes seminars and international symposiums. She's been calling for comprehensive social assistance to keep the number of chronic cases in Fukushima from increasing.

    "I fear that chronic illnesses are overshadowed by high-profile radiation-related cases in Fukushima Prefecture. It's overdue, but we must take action," Ochi says.

    She remains committed to helping people who have lost so much, and communicating their reality from the front line.