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IAEA Helps Strengthen Radiation Medicine in the Caribbean

Vienna, Austria

This week the IAEA launched a project to help Caribbean countries improve radiation medicine services. (Photo: IAEA) 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) started a four-year project to help Caribbean countries improve radiation medicine services as the region’s health systems face increased pressure from non-communicable diseases such as cancer.

The project was launched at a coordination meeting in Vienna this week, bringing together participants from Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago and experts from Cuba, Saint Lucia and Surinam. The meeting was also attended by representatives from the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), the International Organization for Medical Physics (IOMP), the Latin-American Association of Medical Physics (ALFIM), the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM), and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR).

“The aim is to strengthen radiation medicine in the region, particularly in countries that have only recently become members of the IAEA,” said Dazhu Yang, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Technical Cooperation. “The goal is to improve skills through training, with the ultimate objective of ensuring safe and effective diagnosis and treatment of patients.”

Caribbean countries face several challenges in the use of radiation medicine. Most provide diagnostic services, but few offer radiotherapy treatment. Training opportunities are limited, and service delivery is complicated by the fact that the region has many islands with dispersed populations, and suffers from poor infrastructure and the risk of natural disasters.  

As elsewhere in the world, the Caribbean region faces a growing burden of chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and heart conditions. Radiation medicine is an important tool to fight such diseases by providing early detection and effective treatment “The health profile of the Caribbean has shifted, and non-communicable diseases are the greatest problem now,” said Godfrey Xuereb, PAHO representative for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean countries. “Breast, cervical and prostate cancers are the leading causes of death in males and females."  

With a population of 110,000 people spread over 32 islands, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines joined the IAEA in 2017. The country is looking to increase access to radiation medicine, including by cooperating with neighbouring countries to share resources. “Now we only offer diagnostic and limited chemotherapy services,” said the country’s Chief Medical Officer Simone Beache. “But we lose a number of cases, even if we catch them early, because of limited access to radiotherapy.”

With few local opportunities for training and future employment, the retention of qualified personnel within the region is also a problem. Radiation medicine personnel often train, and remain, abroad. The project is looking to expand professional development opportunities, building on an IAEA-supported medical physics programme started in 2011 at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. It will also develop e-learning tools so that professionals can keep up to date in their field.  

The IAEA plans to help countries procure equipment to improve safety in the use of radiation medicine. Hard-hit by a devastating earthquake in 2010, Haiti’s ability to deliver such services has also suffered, for example. The IAEA plans an advisory mission to Haiti at the end of June to help define needs and priorities to assist the country. “Our equipment is old and needs to be replaced,” said radiologist Marie Michelle Saint Elien. “We do not have computed tomography (CT) scans in public hospitals, nor mammography machines or dosimeters.”.     

Non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, are a growing global health problem placing increased pressure on countries to meet a rising demand for affordable treatment services. The IAEA works to support countries in responding to this challenge.

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