A fine line between Raitt and wrong

Friday, June 12, 2009

A fine line between Raitt and wrong

The Harper government's mismanagement of the Chalk River Nuclear Reactor led to its three month shut down.

The reactor produces 1/3 of the world's supply of nuclear isotopes necessary for diagnostic tests in heart and cancer patients. Each day in Canada, approximately 5000 patients need these particular tests.
So, the shutting down of the reactor is a medical catastrophe.

Canadian physicians are gravely concerned that the shortage of these isotopes will affect their ability to give patients the urgent care they need. As a physician, I know well, that early diagnosis of these diseases improves the chances for successful treatment. Delays can have tragic consequences. As a physician I am appalled and saddened at this thoughtless and avoidable harm.

But, the federal Minister responsible for the reactor, Lisa Raitt, apparently, was strangely elated by the catastrophic turn of events. She was of the opinion that since they related to "cancer" and "radiation" these were "sexy" consequences, that would garner massive media attention, and put her in the limelight that would benefit her career.

We know this, because her hapless assistant accidentally taped a conversation in which the delighted Ms Raitt voiced said opinions. Then same assistant forgot the tape recorder at a media studio.... and failed to pick it up for over three months.

The media, as would be expected, played the tape, and wanted to air the conversation. A judge agreed that they could and the die was cast.

Generally speaking, anyone who would take advantage of the suffering of others to advance his/her cause may be considered by many people to be callous and self-absorbed. These traits in Minister of the Crown may prompt some to ask questions about ethics and integrity. The sad thing is: This situation could have been prevented.

In August 2006 Canada's Auditor General warned the Harper government about safety concerns over the Chalk River Nuclear Reactor.. These warnings were ignored. In Dec. 2007, 15 months later, the Chair of the Nuclear safety Commission ordered the Reactor to be shut down, for one month, for repairs or she would not grant the renewal license to operate. The Prime Minister fired the Chair immediately.

Now, after 17 months of government inaction, dangerous leaks have finally forced a shutdown of the reactor... for 3 months.

Did your mother warn you, as did mine, that "a stitch in time saved nine"?
The conservative ministers in charge of the Chalk River Nuclear reactor obviously forget that dictum. Sadly there is more at stake here than an undarned hole in a sock.

Canadian patients are the tragic causalities of this government's incompetence. Their ire and that of their physicians have damaged, further, the already waning credibility of Harper's government. The only dubious beneficiary would seem to be Minister Raitt, who is certainly getting the attention she craved.

Adding insult to injury, the government asks us to trust this same Minister to fix the problem they ignored for two and a half years. This concept, alone, stretches credibility.

But, they also ask us to believe the Minister of Health's platitudinous assurances that Canada will get the isotopes we need from other countries; countries that together, have only been able to produce 2/3 of the global supply, depending on Canada's other 1/3 to fill the world need. Even if these countries, with all good will, upped their isotope production (a feat that will take 3 to 6 months to achieve) they would still be unable to produce the required amounts.

They will, as any common- sensed person will tell you, first serve their own national demand for isotopes and send Canada what small amount is left. At the same time, there will begin a bidding war by countries that used to depend on Canadian supply.

So there are no guarantees that we will get the supply we need. Especially if we remember that Canada's nuclear isotope supply served 5000 Canadians a day, with enough left over to support the US, with ten times the need, as well as Japan and other countries.

The Minister of Health further reassures us that there are substitutes. What she omits to explain is that these substitutes, such as Thallium, used in tests for heart disease; are insufficiently produced to be able to meet all of Canada's needs.

She also fails to mention that there are no substitutes for many necessary nuclear isotopes (in paediatrics for example).

Today, she went out on a limb, and told Parliament, that she thinks she can get enough isotopes to supply 50% of Canada's needs. She did not guarantee that claim.

Let us stretch our imagination and believe her claim.

We then have a conundrum, which 50% of Canadians will get to have the diagnostic tests that can save their lives and which 50% won't?

Who will decide? The physician?

As a physician I can say that for us, our patients are not statistics they are individual human beings who depend on us to give them the best care we can. How can we be asked to make such an impossible choice?

The position is untenable. It was preventable.
The Harper Government has deprived physicians and patients of the tools for essential health care.

But, at least Minister Raitt gets the headlines she sought.