Nova Scotia Health juggles appointments for medical imaging amid global isotope shortage

Medical isotopes are used in PET and CT scans to create images of internal body tissues, including abnormalities such as cancer. (Dr. Christine P. Molnar - image credit)
Medical isotopes are used in PET and CT scans to create images of internal body tissues, including abnormalities such as cancer. (Dr. Christine P. Molnar - image credit)

A global shortage of medical isotopes is causing Nova Scotia Health to rebook some imaging procedures and focus on urgent cases, including cancer patients, according to a news release from the authority on Monday.

The release says the shortage is the result of a "technical problem" at a nuclear reactor in Europe. Isotopes are used as tracing agents in nuclear medicine.

According to Dr. Steven Burrell, the section head of the nuclear medicine at QEII Health Services Centre in Halifax, radioactive isotopes naturally decay over time. That means they cannot be stockpiled and shipments must be received weekly.

Burrell said nuclear medicine can be used to diagnose disease throughout the body.

"There are a number of oncology or cancer scans that we do ... bone scans will be far and away the most common cancer scan that we do and the most common scan overall," he said. "They're used in a wide variety of of medical conditions."

Because of the shortage, the hospital is postponing non-urgent scans and bringing forward the most urgent ones, he said.

If the shortage becomes acute, they will look for other imaging techniques that could replace nuclear imaging for critical cases.

Burrell said the QEII does an average of 6,000 nuclear medicine scans each year.

A news release posted by Nuclear Medicine Europe on Oct. 28 said the production of Molybdenum-99 and Iodine-131 isotopes have been impacted by a mechanical failure identified during a maintenance shutdown of a reactor in Belgium.

The release said repair teams were not able to fix the issue and the earliest startup date for the reactor is Nov. 18.

Supply disruptions are expected to last past the third week of November, the release said.

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