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Government isotope response inadequate, doctors say

Canada's Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 1, 2009.


Members of the nuclear medical community harshly criticized the federal government's response to the isotope crisis Tuesday, arguing that funding announcements are inadequate in the face of rising costs for increasingly scarce radioactive material.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq unveiled $6-million in research dollars Tuesday to help scientists find alternatives to isotopes normally sourced from the Chalk River reactor, which has been offline since May.

But doctors fear that by not safeguarding its own supplies of traditional isotopes, Canada is throwing itself at the mercy of an increasingly cutthroat global marketplace, and could leave its supply chain vulnerable to isotope bidding wars.

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"If Canada is not playing a leadership role any more, we become dependent," said Christopher O'Brien, Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine president.

At the same time, Australia's OPAL reactor is preparing shipments to the U.S. "as we speak," said Ian Turner, general manager behind Australia's isotope production. Australia saw the looming crisis in the late 1990s and seized the opportunity to secure their own isotope supply; now, they're poised to cash in on the global frenzy by exporting the radioactive gold - if they can ramp up production quickly enough.

"Our government had the wisdom over a decade ago to invest in a reactor. … The key issue we saw was reliability," Dr. Turner said.

Although isotope supplies have stabilized after dipping dangerously low last week, hospitals across the country are struggling to pay for them - prices have as much as tripled compared to what health-care providers normally pay. For now, hospitals are either going into debt or cutting from other departments to pay for the procedures. But they fear being forced to restrict patient access to services, Dr. O'Brien said.

"We've had absolutely no direction from the government - either provincial or federal - as to what will cover the cost."

Canadians can expect more of the same in the years ahead, Dr. O'Brien said, as scarce supply drives isotope prices up and makes them available to the highest bidder.

At a news conference announcing funding to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute Tuesday, Ms. Aglukkaq was repeatedly asked if the federal government would provide some financial help to the provinces to pay for costly procedures hospitals are using as alternatives to the Chalk River isotopes. She would say only that her government increased health-care transfers to the provinces and territories in the last budget.

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Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine president Jean-Luc Urbain said the federal research dollars are impractical when Canadians need alternative treatments immediately.

"We're in a crisis. We shouldn't be planning to do research that might yield something five years down the road," he said. "It's health care 101."

Nuclear experts say the fastest way to restore the Canadian isotope supply is to get the NRU reactor at Chalk River running again. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. says repairing the leak that caused the outage will take at least three months.

Members of the Commons natural resources committee were told yesterday that the 50-year-old research unit at McMaster University could produce about half of what Chalk River produces now, or 40 per cent of the North American supply, within 18 months.

Chris Heysel, the director of the McMaster reactor, said he would need another $30-million over five years to pay for the increase in fuel and staff costs. That's in addition to the $22-million that the government gave to McMaster last month. AECL and MDS Nordion would still have to process the isotopes produced at the university.

But the government, which has indicated its intention to get out of the business of producing medical isotopes, has not expressed an interest in subsidizing any long-term production of medical isotopes at McMaster.

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Nigel Lockyer the director of TRIUMF, the particle and nuclear physics laboratory at the University of British Columbia, told the committee his group's five particle accelerators could produce medical isotopes for public use within five years.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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