Isotope crisis overblown, MDs say

OTTAWA, CANADA - Physicians from British Columbia and Ontario have cast doubt on the Conservative government's contention that the recent medical isotope shortage was a life-or-death situation.

Health Minister Tony Clement and others in the government painted a dark picture at the time, insisting extreme measures had to be taken to restart the Chalk River nuclear research reactor so that isotopes – used in diagnostic tests for cancer and cardiovascular diseases – could be produced again to prevent people from dying.

"It's always very difficult to connect a diagnostic test or the absence of a diagnostic test with the eventual outcome in terms of a patient," Karen Gulenchyn, chief of nuclear medicine for Hamilton Health Sciences and St. Joseph's Healthcare, told Parliament's natural resources committee.

"Would people have died? It is a very difficult question to answer," said Gulenchyn, who advised the Conservative government on how to deal with the shortage.

The committee is holding hearings into problems at the aging reactor that led to a safety-related shutdown by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and triggered the isotope shortage.

The reactor, run by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., was shut down Nov. 18 for routine maintenance, but safety commission staff found that mandatory safety upgrades had not been done.

Dr. Tom Perry, who teaches at the University of British Columbia and is a former B.C. cabinet minister, told the committee via video conference that, from B.C's point of view, the so-called isotope crisis was "much ado about nothing."

"I was puzzled by the news reports... because we certainly didn't perceive any crisis out here," said Perry, a general internist and clinical pharmacologist.


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