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First-of-its-kind Biodosimetry Service in Costa Rica Ready to Assess Accidental Radiation Exposure

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INISA staff analyzing chromosomes using automated equipment. (Photo: R. Scamilla Andreo Aledo/IAEA)

A first-of-its-kind biological dosimetry service in Costa Rica — and the only one of its kind in Central America — is now ready to assess people who may have been unexpectedly exposed to radiation. Biological dosimetry is the science of measuring and verifying the exact dose of radiation exposure to a person. This new service is part of the country’s efforts to strengthen emergency response in the case of accidents or other unplanned radiation exposures.

“Having biodosimetry services is of great importance in case of a nuclear or radiological emergency, and neither Costa Rica nor any other country in Central America had a laboratory that could provide such services,” said Luisa Valle Bourrouet, a researcher at the Institute of Health Research (INISA).

In Costa Rica, radiation sources are widely used in health care as part of radiation medicine, and in industry for quality control of products and processes. Over the last 50 years, more than 40 radiological accidents have been reported in Latin America. Before 2017, there were no laboratories in Costa Rica or the region that could provide timely and adequate biodosimetric assessments.

Experts set up the new service in 2017 at a laboratory in INISA with support from the IAEA, in part through an IAEA technical cooperation project, in collaboration with national authorities, including the University of Costa Rica. Several of the technical aspects were also developed in cooperation with the Latin American Biological Dosimetry Network (LBDNet), which was founded in 2007 to provide early biological dosimetry assistance in case of radiation emergencies in Latin America.

In addition to material support, the IAEA, through its technical cooperation programme, also offered fellowships, training courses and scientific visits to improve the laboratory team’s skills. The measuring and verification processes available in Costa Rica were much more complex before the skills and equipment upgrades, said Valle Bourrouet.

“A minimum of 500 blood cells have to be analysed to check if a person is affected by radiation exposure. Our methods at INISA used to be manual. We would use a microscope to observe if the blood samples were altered, which was a time-consuming process,” she explained. “But the new setup can help identify any change in a blood sample in an automated way, meaning we can respond to accidents more efficiently and rapidly.”

Accurate biological dosimetry techniques

The laboratory team providing the service was reviewed in late 2018 by an IAEA expert mission, sent upon Costa Rica’s request, which was the last of several expert review missions. The final mission experts checked the team’s accuracy when using the different biological dosimetry techniques and confirmed the correct use of equipment.

“An effective and well-equipped biodosimetry laboratory can benefit Costa Rica and help support medical care for people who may be involved in an emergency. In the future, this service could also support other laboratories around the region,” said Eduardo Herrera Reyes, a medical emergency preparedness specialist at the IAEA.

The laboratory team, in collaboration with the IAEA and LBDNet, plans to continue to refine and strengthen biological dosimetry services in Costa Rica and support further research related to biological dosimetry in areas such as individual radiosensitivity, as well as research involving occupationally exposed personnel to study the biological effects of radiation.

The IAEA has worked with countries in regions worldwide to set up similar services. This is part of the IAEA’s ongoing support to ensure countries have access to biological dosimetry in case of emergencies.

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