Isotope shortage delays procedures for patients across Canada

CanWest News Service
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OTTAWA - The worldwide supply of medical isotopes used to help diagnose a host of health problems, including cancer and cardiovascular disease, may be in short supply in the weeks and months ahead because of an extended shutdown at a Canadian nuclear reactor.

OTTAWA - The worldwide supply of medical isotopes used to help diagnose a host of health problems, including cancer and cardiovascular disease, may be in short supply in the weeks and months ahead because of an extended shutdown at a Canadian nuclear reactor.

The Chalk River, Ont. reactor, about 180 kilometres northwest of Ottawa, provides the raw material that allows MDS Nordion to produce medical isotopes - which are injected into patients to help create images of the body for diagnostic purposes.

However, MDS Nordion announced Wednesday the planned shutdown at the Chalk River facility - owned by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited - had to be extended into the new year to conduct additional maintenance work.

MDS said Wednesday that AECL: "has advised ... that a further extension of the maintenance shutdown at the National Research Universal reactor will be required to complete its upgrade of the electrical back-up system to address a regulatory issue. We understand that they are now targeting a return to full production in early to mid-January."

The news came as a shock to patients and caregivers.

"Having a scheduled test and waiting for it longer than you'd expect just adds more stress to an already stressful situation," said Heather Logan, director of cancer control policy and information for the Canadian Cancer Society.

Andrew Ross, a nuclear medicine doctor with Halifax's QEII Health Sciences Centre, stopped short of calling the lack of radioisotopes life-threatening.

He said using radioisotopes for diagnosis is the best, most effective and safest procedure for the patient. "Without it, we're going to second string."

"The story as of today is the reactor is not coming back until January, so we are in dire straits," Ross said.

"The part of the story that upsets me is from the company that runs the reactor, we've had very poor information flow," Ross said, noting that if Chalk River is the "single-source provider," then it should be making contingency plans.

"We've all been caught completely unaware. It's been very tough to make any kinds of plans or deal with this in a constructive manner."

In the House of Commons, Health Minister Tony Clement said Wednesday he was "very concerned" about the problem and that work is underway to "resolve the situation."

"We are working with industry right now, we are getting emergency supplies for emergency procedures and that will continue ..." said Clement.

Dawn-Marie King of Toronto's University Health Network said nuclear medicine officials have been cancelling procedures since Monday.

"We have cancelled about 20 patients per day, probably closer to 40 or 50 across the organization, and if we are unable to procure any of the isotope we are going to be cancelling about 120 patients a day next week," said King, who is the director of clinical operations, joint department of clinical imaging.

King, who is responsible for providing isotopes to five sites in Toronto, said she's looking for more.

Organizations: MDS Nordion, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, Canadian Cancer Society QEII Health Sciences Centre House of Commons Health Network

Geographic location: Chalk River, Canada, OTTAWA Toronto

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