Radioisotope shortage could hit U.K. as early as next week

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British officials think that a radioisotope agent shortage is imminent. Image Source: Government of South Australia  

British patients may soon face delays for vital medical scans due to a shortage of imaging agents.

Hospitals across England are on the alert after the British Nuclear Medicine Society's honorary secretary, Alan Perkins, MD, reported a ‘severe shortage’ of radioactive imaging agents needed for scanning equipment.

Nearly 60 North Lincolnshire patients are currently waiting for scans to diagnose cancer and heart disease. Northern Lincolnshire and Goole Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust spokesman Simon Rigg said it was too early to tell whether there would be a problem.

Rigg said that this “time next week, we could be seriously thinking about alternative treatments. However, the worry in these things sometimes outweighs the actuality.”

The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (N &N) also said that it is one of many U.K. hospitals that cannot get the medical isotopes they need to do tests involving low-level radiation. The tests include bone scans, in particular to see whether prostate cancer has spread, as well as heart, kidney and thyroid function tests.

So far, 10 patients have had tests cancelled, while others have simply not been offered appointments. The hospital's workload will be reviewed again at the beginning of next week. The N &N said its stock of technetium 99m (Tc99m) is roughly a quarter of what it would normally need. Normally it performs 90 nuclear tests a week, 80 of which are with TC99m. The service is expected to be at reduced capacity for the next four weeks.

The alert has been sparked by three out of five nuclear reactors supplying medical isotopes being shut down, according to the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph.

British hospitals are now receiving fewer than half the supplies they need and experts have warned levels could continue to drop.

N &N spokesman Andrew Stronach said that there “will be some cancellations and temporary increases in waiting times for nuclear medicine scans. Whilst we do have some stock of Tc99m, it is roughly a quarter of what we would normally need.”

“We will be prioritizing the patients according to their clinical need. Clearly, cancer patients (these are mainly bone scans for prostate cancers) will be the priority and we expect to be able to provide a service for them,” according to Stronach.

At the moment in North Lincolnshire, 15 patients are waiting for cardiac blood flow imaging and 44 for bone scans for secondary tumors. The hospital is commissioned to complete 700 scans for North Lincolnshire patients each year.

Rigg said none of the patients currently awaiting bone and blood scans had been waiting longer than two weeks. He added that there were currently no patients waiting for other scans affected by the shortage, for renal function in children and lymph node detection in breast cancer.