Sunday, February 14, 2010

Calling out Harper's isotopes inaction

Excellent editorial in the Star today: "The search for isotope answers." The Star catalogues a number of the big questions that remain outstanding on this issue:
Canadians need some straight answers:

When will Ottawa put forward its long-promised plan to ensure Canadians access to vital medical tests?

If global isotope production remains unpredictable – as all the evidence suggests – Canada needs a strategy to cope with the shortfall. That may include using research reactors, cyclotrons and particle accelerators, or making more PET scans available, or negotiating backup agreements with the dwindling number of isotope suppliers.

When will the government respond to the report of its Expert Review Panel, which delivered its findings in December?

The four-member team – drawn from the top ranks of the medical and scientific communities – urged the Conservatives to rethink their decision to get out of isotope production and invest in a new multi-purpose reactor, capable of providing 10 to 12 years of certainty and performing other functions. Estimated cost: $1.2 billion.

Will Ottawa take a second look at the mothballed MAPLE reactors, built to replace the 52-year reactor at Chalk River?

The Harper government pulled the plug on the two reactors in May 2008, after years of cost overruns and delays. But numerous scientists have said the reactors can be brought into service.

Will Ottawa at least provide the provinces with the resources to improvise ways of coping with the predicament it placed them in? They're already out millions of dollars.

After two years of turmoil, nuclear scientists are leaving the country, Canadians have lost faith in the ability of their health-care system to deliver prompt cancer and cardiac care, and the international medical community has lost confidence in Canada.

Worst of all, the Prime Minister appears to think this is acceptable.
So much of this file really speaks to a simple point, this issue is about basic governmental competence that's lacking in the Harper government. The government had a problem staring it in the face in the form of an aging reactor that failed in December 2007. Yet they've dawdled on taking any action since then. Sure there's been a recent expert panel that's weighed in on options. But it was only appointed in the summer of 2009 after that 2007 shutdown. They even waited to appoint that 2009 panel after they'd been previously warned by their own earlier "lessons learned" expert panel in the spring of 2008 that there needed to be urgent action given the serious medical consequences that occurred surrounding the 2007 failure. What action there has been - mothballing the Maples back-ups in the spring of 2008 without a concerted effort to study their issues - has exacerbated the situation we're now in.

The big question is what is the Harper agenda here? Harper pronounces we're getting out of the business yet still appoints a panel to weigh in on the future after he's prejudged it. That glaring contradiction has never been reconciled.

The plan may very well be to let the old reactor wind down in 2016 or maybe a bit beyond that and then start buying our isotope supplies from around the world, become reliant upon the U.S. in particular, for example. Which is really not a very good plan at all. The demand for nuclear diagnostic tests is only going up and isotopes have a short shelf life, they don't travel well. It's not an ideal product to be importing. It's expensive for hospitals to be dependent on foreign suppliers, it stretches resources. Is that what they foresee for Canadian patients in our aging population? A future of dependence on foreign suppliers for such a high demand health care product?

It's high time these issues got more attention. Sitting on their hands for over two years is just not cutting it.

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