Medical isotopes and me

The federal Liberals are attacking the Harper government for failing, in their view, to deal with the medical isotope shortage. The shortage, which was triggered by the (second) shutdown of the Chalk River NRU reactor last May, will be exacerbated by the shutdown of the Dutch Petten reactor for repairs, which start this month and will run through the summer.

I didn’t say anything about the isotope issue while I was working for Health Canada (though, strictly speaking, Natural Resources is the lead department on this issue, I did edit some work on this issue), but I’m not working there any more — and I just figured out that I have direct experience with the medical isotopes that are now in short supply.

One of the isotopes produced by the NRU reactor is technetium-99m, which, among other things, is used in bone scans. In late 1997, it was a bone scan that revealed activity in my heels and sacroiliac joint and suggested the likelihood of ankylosing spondylitis. Had that bone scan not been available, I would not have received the right diagnosis as quickly, and I cannot imagine how things would have turned out then. Most people with my disease go years before getting the right diagnosis; I was damn lucky to get it only six months after the onset of severe symptoms.

If bone scans are harder to come by as a result of the isotope shortage, people like me will be considerably worse off.