Preserving Wellness: IAEA Activities in Health Care

The IAEA's health programmes encompass everything from cancer and TB, to maternal health and heart health. (Photo: S. Henriques/IAEA)

Cancer, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, cardiovascular disease and malnutrition are major health concerns around the world. People affected by these illnesses often cannot continue to work or even to care for their families. On a national scale, illness that strikes during the most productive years of individuals' lives, negatively affects economic growth.

Therefore, as part of the IAEA's mandate to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world, the Agency helps Member States to apply nuclear techniques to the detection, diagnosis, and treatment of these diseases.

For example, nuclear imaging techniques and radiation therapy are important in the early detection, diagnosis and treatment of chronic, noncommunicable diseases (NCD) such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. According to the World Health Organization's March 2013 data, NCDs kill more than 36 million people each year. Cardiovascular diseases account for most of these deaths (17.3 million), followed by cancers (7.6 million), respiratory diseases (4.2 million), and diabetes (1.3 million).

The IAEA helps countries assess their capabilities to handle the problem, support them as they create national plans of action, source and fund the purchase of necessary equipment, provide expertise on everything from security to installation, and train the specialist medical personnel the country will need to operate these health programmes effectively.

Finding Funding

Nearly 80% of NCD deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, and more than nine million of all deaths attributed to NCDs are "premature", occurring before age 60.

In low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) where health systems often focus on the immediate threat of communicable diseases rather than chronic, expensive-to-treat NCDs, resources for the growing NCD burden are hard to come by. The IAEA works with its group of global partners to help LMIC Member States to secure the funding they need for the short and long term.

Safe, Quality Care

Beyond the immediate application of nuclear imaging and radiation therapy, the IAEA also helps Member States ensure that patients and medical personnel are protected from unnecessary exposure to ionizing radiation during diagnostic procedures, and that cancer patients receive the prescribed radiation doses during their treatment.

The IAEA disseminates dosimetry standards and, when so requested by Member States, the IAEA's Dosimetry Laboratory at Seibersdorf audits the accuracy of countries' radiation equipment and dose measurements. This is done by calibrating dosimeters that are used to determine radiation doses at laboratories and hospitals, enabling medical physicists to fine-tune their radiotherapy equipment and to accurately measure doses generated by diagnostic x-ray machines. This is a key step in maximizing image quality while minimizing the radiation dose to patients.

The Dosimetry Laboratory at Seibersdorf also verifies beam calibrations used for the treatment of cancer patients worldwide.

These calibration and audit services are free of charge.

The IAEA also supports comprehensive quality audits in nuclear medicine, diagnostic radiology and radiation oncology through a combination of tools and guidance for self-auditing, as well as carrying out external audits when requested. Through its quality assurance programmes the Agency undertakes comprehensive reviews of radiotherapy procedures, structures and processes, and concentrates on improving the quality of patient care, and the provision and organization of clinical services.

The IAEA also helps scientists in Member States use non-radioactive nuclear techniques to understand the effects of food consumption and nutrition. Nuclear technology is also used to assess the immune responses of individuals infected by diseases, and to monitor the emergence of drug resistance.

Last update: 17 November 2014