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Harnessing Atoms to Save Hearts and Fight Cancer: Nuclear Medicine in Latin America and the Caribbean


(Photo: E. Estrada Lobato/IAEA)

Over 600 million hearts are beating in Latin America and the Caribbean, pumping life into bodies that are living longer, but often leading more sedentary and unhealthy lifestyles. The continent’s growing and aging population relies in part on access to nuclear medicine services that improve cost-effective management of the main causes of death: cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

“The number of patients that need nuclear medicine exams is increasing every year, but they often don’t have access,” said Claudio Tinoco Mesquita, President of the Brazilian Society of Nuclear Medicine. “In my country, for example, there should be at least double the number of nuclear medicine centres to cover the growing population’s needs, from departments, equipment and trained professionals, of everything. We are working very hard to improve access to nuclear medicine services. For that, the support of the IAEA has been essential.”

Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) kill more people than any other health condition in the world, closely followed by cancer. In Latin America and the Caribbean, about half of all deaths are due to CVDs and cancer, especially of the lungs, prostate, breast and cervix.

Nuclear medicine is a small, but key area of health care (see The Science box) that uses atoms that emit radiation, known as radionuclides, to diagnose, treat and manage diseases and health conditions. This field relies on specialized drugs called radiopharmaceuticals, sophisticated tools such as cyclotrons and diagnostic imaging devices such as positron emission tomography (PET) and single photon-emission computed tomography (SPECT) and highly specialized medical professionals.

“Early and accurate diagnosis is critical for effective treatment of both cardiovascular diseases and cancer,” said Diana Paez, Head of the Nuclear Medicine and Diagnostic Imaging Section at the IAEA. “Nuclear medicine provides essential diagnostic and therapeutic services that help doctors care for cardiac and cancer patients, and when diagnosed early, treatment can begin sooner, leading to improved patient outcomes.”

Access to nuclear medicine in Latin America and the Caribbean is often uneven and limited, particularly in rural areas, Paez said. “While private health care often offers more nuclear medicine services, many public facilities lag behind, and these are the hospitals most people rely on.”

Providing equipment, offering training

To help bridge gaps in health care, the IAEA, through its Technical Cooperation Programme and with the support of the Peaceful Uses Initiative (PUI), has played a key role in facilitating the development and improvement of nuclear medicine on a national level and across the region. This includes providing support for purchasing equipment, and, as of 2016, face-to-face training for more than 600 professionals in specialized skills and carrying out more than 500 expert missions to raise awareness among health care practitioners and decision makers of the clinical applications of nuclear medicine.

Through online training courses in nuclear medicine diagnostics, more than 1200 professionals have been trained in the region. In addition, over 1000 specialists have also participated in webinars, conferences, and other continuing education activities and post-graduate work supported, and in many cases sponsored, by the IAEA. The IAEA also supports research and development through, among others, partnerships with national and regional nuclear medicine institutes, as well as technical meetings and international conferences. The IAEA works with its Member States in part through the Regional Technical Cooperation Agreement for the Promotion of Nuclear Science and Technology in Latin America and the Caribbean Region.

“Assisting countries to improve their nuclear medicine services and to transfer innovative technologies to benefit patients is an important aspect of our development efforts in the region,” said Luis Carlos Longoria Gandara, Director of the IAEA’s Division for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Access to quality health care services like these can help prevent unnecessary deaths and improve people’s lives.”

-----This work, and how it can be further deployed or replicated elsewhere will be discussed at this year’s Scientific Forum on 28-29 September in Vienna, which focuses on the contribution of nuclear science and technology towards the achievement of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.

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