Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Truthiness on isotopes

Some are clearly not feeling the "Stephen Harper: Leadership" vibe this morning:
François Lamoureux, the President of the Quebec Association of Nuclear Medicine Specialists, said in a telephone interview Monday that he didn't think Mr. Harper “lives in the same country where our patients and our nuclear doctors live.”
Could it be because there is a serious disconnect between what the Prime Minister is telling Canadians and what the scientists are? The PM on Monday:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper took steps Monday to reassure the public the government has the isotope shortage under control even as an international body of nuclear medicine called the ongoing shortage of the radioactive material one of the “greatest threats” to patient care in modern times.

“We do believe we have enough isotopes available to manage the current situation and to enable other diagnostic tests to be used in cases where isotopes cannot be provided,” Mr. Harper told the House of Commons Monday.
Versus the scientists on Monday:
Calling it one of the biggest crises in the history of the profession, the head of an international nuclear medicine group says the shutdown of Canada's Chalk River reactor last month is forcing "several thousand" heart and cancer scans a day to be cancelled or moved to the United States.

Hundreds of those patients might have to undergo exploratory surgical procedures in the absence of scans typically fuelled by Chalk River's isotopes, said Robert Atcher, president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine.

"The patient community is facing one of its greatest threats in modern times," Atcher told a news conference at his society's annual meeting in Toronto yesterday.
More from the scientists:

In a growing number of cases, doctors have been forced to turn to different methods of testing because of the isotope shortage, said Atcher. "The danger is that you'll be using imaging studies that involve more radiation dose to the patient."

"And potentially they're less sensitive and accurate in terms of the information we get about the patient. In many cases they're also more costly and, lastly, they may be much more invasive."

That's quite the picture that's being painted.

As a solution, the scientists are calling for investment into nuclear research facilities to assure production of the isotopes needed for diagnostic scans. A problem though that keeps coming back to haunt the Harper Conservatives, their mothballing of the MAPLES reactors:
Jill Chitra, vice-president of strategic technology, said MDS is holding out hope for isotope production in Canada, despite Mr. Harper's assertion last week that Canada's getting out of the business it helped pioneer.

“We continue to believe the Maple reactors are the solution to this problem – short-term and long-term.”
...
“There were assurances about 10 or 12 years ago that with the Maples coming online and with two of them being built that we in the U.S. really didn't need to invest in that very much more. So that project ceased,” he said. “We had, at least in the U.S., some assurances that we were going to have an assured supply of molybdenum…The decision a year ago not to proceed with the Maples came as a shock, as you can imagine.”
To sum up on yesterday's voices...the Harper government says we're fine on supply, the scientists say unequivocally, no, that's not true. The Harper government shut down the MAPLES reactors and indicated last week it would get out of the medical isotope business altogether down the road, yet voices in the scientific community are shocked and haven't ruled out the MAPLES reactors at all. Somebody's not being straight here.

One last point, on yesterday's developments, the Harper government has appointed an independent scientist to be the government's point person for the duration of the isotope shortage, a "Special Advisor on Medical Isotopes" (not well-received by the President of the Quebec Association of Nuclear Medicine Specialists, scroll to bottom, here). The ministerial super duo is apparently not cutting it to speak for themselves in the eyes of Mr. Harper. That or the Harper p.r. squad wants to put an independent non-governmental face on the government's response. Think we can understand why.

For more on this topic, see: Blog Post Index: Medical Isotope crisis & Chalk River shutdown.