Tech Track: SA nuclear medicine could save state time and money
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By Kelvin Kemm
SOUTH Africa is the second-largest supplier of nuclear medicine in the world.
Amazingly, every three minutes someone somewhere in the world is injected with nuclear medicine from South Africa, and every three hours someone’s life is saved.
Nuclear medicine is time sensitive, so it is flown daily to the export markets. South Africa exports these chemicals to more than 60 countries.
The medicine is produced in the nuclear reactor at the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa), near Pretoria. It is the only nuclear reactor in the world that runs continuously producing nuclear medicine, among other products, such as high-grade electronic silicon that could end up in your cellphone or TV.
The medicine is packaged for export using remote-handling arms inside radiation-proof hot cells. This is carried out by highly skilled technicians who are adept at using the mechanical arms.
The medicine exports earn Necsa revenue of more than a billion rand a year. This puts Necsa in the position of paying tax to South African Revenue Service, to the benefit of the taxpayer.
A primary use of nuclear medicine is in the detection and treatment of cancer. Nuclear medicine can detect cancer far earlier than any other method. It is spectacularly accurate.
A radioactive medicine is injected into a patient. The medicine is designed to migrate to a particular site, such as a cancer. It carries the radioactive atoms to the cancer, where they “park” and emit radiation in the form of gamma rays. This radiation is detected outside the body, using a nuclear scanner. This is somewhat similar to an MR-scan or an X-ray scan. A specialist nuclear medicine doctor analyses the results and produces a diagnosis. The treatment is then determined.
The injected nuclear radiation is perfectly safe. It is a low dose and is excreted from the body some days later, so there is absolutely no need to worry about the term “nuclear radiation”.
Nuclear medicine has advanced from being an entirely diagnostic tool to being used to a certain degree in therapy. This therapeutic field is referred to as theranostics and is still rather new. However, in Pretoria there have been some spectacular cancer cures using nuclear techniques. There are people who have been diagnosed with cancer from head to toe and some time after receiving nuclear medicine have showed no signs whatsoever that they had cancer, and were living a normal life. This field is set to advance dramatically.
Few people know of the existence of nuclear medicine, and they certainly do not know of its amazing diagnostic and detection abilities. Ideally, people should have a nuclear scan every year.
Such a scan would show the onset of cancer long before a doctor would normally detect it. If you detect it very early, there is a good chance of a total cure. Many cancers are detected at such an advanced stage that there is little that can be done.
The Department of Health (DOH) should place many scanning centres around the country. They can be linked to diagnostic centres by email, and professional diagnosis can be carried out in major centres. This would save the state a huge amount of money, because rural patients tend to turn up at larger hospitals when the disease is far advanced. It then costs the state a great deal to treat them. I know that the DOH is contemplating this.
Medical schemes should authorise nuclear scans very early on. Medical schemes tend to make patients undergo chemotherapy and all sorts of other unpleasant treatments, and authorise a nuclear scan later. If they placed nuclear nearer the start, they could save themselves a lot of money and save the patients much concern.
Developments in the application of nuclear technology are taking place across a wide front, and will flourish even more in the future.
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is the chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants, a project management company.
*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites