The Dose That Saves

Published Date: 21 February 2006

In health care, the double-edged sword of radiation can be used to fight cancer and scope out signs of disease... under strict controls and in the right hands. In Prague, Czech Republic, Dr. Josef Novotný,  a medical physicist, works to make sure that patients are correctly and safely treated at Na Homolce Hospital. He checks and calibrates equipment, and conducts training in radiation safety under an IAEA-supported project. In the hands of masters, radiation in health care is brain surgery. At Prague's Na Homolce Hospital, a high-tech machine called a "gamma knife" replaces the surgeon's scalpel to combat brain tumours without incisions. A single treatment targets 201 gamma rays at cancerous cells. Alone, the gamma rays are too weak to harm the cells or surrounding tissues. Together, they converge to deliver a radiation dose with the power to cure tumours over time. One task of a medical physicist is to check of the quality of the X-ray equipment. They make sure the radiation doses patients receive from X-Rays are reasonable. Zuzana Pašková directs a team of independent inspectors from SŬJB, the Czech Republic's State Office for Nuclear Safety. These inspectors verify that health care workers using radiation to diagnose and heal patients have the proper credentials and training to conduct their work correctly. At SŬJB headquarters in Prague, Dr. Petr Krs explains that each radioactive source used in medicine and industry must be licensed, monitored and safely disposed of when it is "spent" or no longer of use "Our country has a long experience with using ionising radiation in medicine and industry," says SŬJB's Dr. Petr Krs. "We want the safety levels to be as high as possible, especially in countries that use similar technology. Through the IAEA's Technical Cooperation and training programmes, we are supporting others to use it in a safer way." The Czech Republic is transferring its "know how" in radiation protection to former Soviet bloc countries, the Middle East and Asia. The IAEA is supporting a regional networking project, among its Technical Cooperation activities, that involves eighteen countries. Each year some 60 fellows, many from Russian speaking countries, are sent to the Czech Republic for training. The fellowships are rolled out under the IAEA's Technical Cooperation programme. Particular emphasis goes to conducting independent inspections to ensure that quality assurance procedures are implemented, and to developing legislation and a national system of registration for controlling radioactive sources. "Human error and lack of training is a main reason why accidents occur," says IAEA radiation safety officer, Dr. Geetha Sadagopah. "Any tool, if you use if carefully is not going to cause you harm." The IAEA helps to set international standards and train health care workers to use radiation effectively. Training ranges from post-graduate educational courses, to shorter specialized workshops, distance learning and "train-the-trainer" programmes. The Czech Republic's chief nuclear regulator, Dr. Dana Drábová, says her country is well placed to assist former Soviet bloc countries. "We lived in a similar world for 40 years," she says. "We understand the difficulties to create a legislative basis. So we can help to share our knowledge on ways to develop a sound radiation protection infrastructure." The Czech Republic is among countries that have benefited from the IAEA's technical assistance and support in fields of health care. Now the country's experts say they are well placed and equipped to pay it back - by helping colleagues in other countries safely apply nuclear and radiation medical technologies. Says top nuclear regulator Dr. Dana Drábová, "Having high levels of safety stands to benefit us all."