Friday, June 5, 2009

Note to Leona Aglukkaq. Stephen Harper Will Not Save you Now

I really want to like Leona Aglukkaq, and in fact I do. When she was named the Minister of Health on October 30, 2008, she became the first Inuk in Canadian to hold a cabinet position in the federal government.

She is young, bright and clear headed. During the Swine Flu outbreak, she remained calm and cool, and handled herself extremely well.
In fact even the Liberal health critic, Keith Martin, said that Aglukkaq was doing a "terrific job," and he especially liked how she phoned all opposition critics to build consensus on the swine flu issue.

However, this new crisis could get her sucked into a negative response on the isotope shortage, being orchestrated by Lisa Raitt and Stephen Harper. Her name is now appearing in the press on most stories dealing with the situation, and critics are no longer kind to this "rookie" MP.

This is a shame. The Tories finally have a true rising star, but instead are throwing in their lot with a woman who has already proven that she can't be trusted.

Whether Ms Aglukkaq can come out of this unscathed, is anyone's guess, but her boss sure isn't coming to her rescue. Will she be as expendible as Jasmine Macdonnell? I sure hope not.

Two weeks ago:

'Patients will suffer' from Chalk River shutdown: medical imaging industry
4 out of 5 medical isotope reactors in the world currently out of service
May 19, 2009
CBC News

Patients in North America will face delays in medical treatment as a result of the month-long shutdown of an Ontario nuclear reactor
that supplies medical isotopes, says a spokesman for the medical imaging industry. The shutdown is occurring at a time when three out of four other reactors in the world that produce the isotopes are also off-line.
"Lots of diagnostic examinations will not be able to be done during the next week," Jean-Pierre Cabocel, general manager of the Association of Imaging Producers and Equipment Suppliers, said on Tuesday.

Treatments that rely on diagnosis through imaging will not go ahead, he added.

"Patients will suffer."

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) announced Monday that its Chalk River reactor, located about 185 kilometres northwest of Ottawa, will remain out of service for more than a month due to a leak at the base of the reactor vessel.

The agency noticed the heavy water leak on Friday, a day after the reactor was shut down due to a power outage in eastern Ontario and western Quebec. The leak, which also released a small amount of radioactive tritium, was traced to a corroded outer wall of the reactor vessel.

Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt said in a statement Tuesday that the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission assured her the heavy water leak poses no health and safety risk "and that AECL's actions are in keeping with a strong safety culture."

Due to the shutdown, AECL said it will be unable to meet its production requirements for medical isotopes starting this coming Saturday.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said in a statement that the federal government has been talking to the provinces and health-care providers and encouraging them to maximize the supply of medical isotopes available through measures such as modifying patient scheduling and triaging.

Isotopes have short shelf life so this was very good advice from the health minister.
Sun Media
National Affairs Column
May 28, 2009

OTTAWA -- Canada's only medical isotope reactor will be out of service for the rest of the year and possibly forever, leaving thousands of desperate cancer and heart patients across the country with a shortage of nuclear scans and treatments.

Of the remaining two, the one in South Africa is a relatively small producer, while the Dutch reactor that supplies 30% of the world market is being taken out of service for maintenance in July. Federal officials confirmed yesterday they've been unable to secure an alternative supply.
Isotope distributors are warning of shortages even in Alberta and other areas of the West supplied by the Dutch reactor still in operation. A five-week shutdown of the Chalk River facility in 2007 for safety reasons prompted the Conservative government to order it back into service, claiming cancer and heart patients would have died without immediate access to nuclear scans and treatments.

This time, the situation is far more dire, yet federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq has been all but silent on the crisis.

Patients put at risk
By Greg Weston
Sun Media
May 31, 2009

Federal health minister Aglukkaq, for one, has been all but invisible
, presumably so she won't have to explain how little her government has done to prepare for another isotope crisis since the last one in 2007.
It was the early morning hours of May 15 when the alarm systems at the 52-year-old Chalk River nuclear reactor began signalling a possible radioactive leak.

In an internal memo that afternoon, officials at the Ontario facility said they anticipated no lasting disruption in the reactor's production of critical medical isotopes used in cancer treatments and diagnostic scans.

That would quickly change.

At 8:13 p. m. on May 18, the federal agency that operates the reactor, Atomic Energy of Canada, issued an urgent advisory to federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and other high-ranking government officials.

"Given the high probability of the current outage continuing for more than a month, the threat to isotope production is set at the highest level, Red."

Before the leak, an estimated 4,000 Canadian cancer and heart patients a day were relying on the Chalk River isotopes for radioactive scans and treatments.

Without it, Canadian hospitals and clinics are expected to be down to a fraction of their normal isotope supply this week.

The result is what nuclear medicine specialists are calling a health "catastrophe."

The Chalk River reactor is now expected to be out of commission for the rest of this year, if not forever.

That makes the current situation a far worse health disaster than the 2007 shutdown the same Conservative government called a "national and international medical crisis."

In that case, the government went to the extreme of firing the country's nuclear regulator, Linda Keen, after she ordered the Chalk River reactor shut down for a matter of weeks for safety reasons.

After legislating the reactor back into service for isotope production, Gary Lunn, who was natural resources minister at the time, told a Commons committee: "If we had not acted, people would have died."

If anyone in government is worried about cancer and heart patients dying this time, you'd never know it.

On the contrary, Stephen Harper's government has been doing everything possible to mask the growing health emergency.

Federal health minister Aglukkaq, for one, has been all but invisible
, presumably so she won't have to explain how little her government has done to prepare for another isotope crisis since the last one in 2007.

Chalk River is the largest of only five isotope reactors in the world, all of which are more than 40 years old and in regular need of repair.

One might have thought that after the scare two years ago, the Harper government would have ensured back-up supply agreements with other producers in Europe and Africa.

Instead, senior officials tell us the government "completely dropped the ball."

Almost a week after the latest reactor shutdown started, we asked Aglukkaq's office what the minister and her federal health department had done to address the current crisis.

As a reply, we received a memo from another minister stating that Aglukkaq "spoke with her counterpart in the U. S. to communicate the urgency of the situation to our neighbours to the south."

Since the U. S. has no isotope production of its own, the shutdown of our leaky Canadian reactor has curtailed about half of all nuclear scans in America.

It was indeed an urgent message for the U. S., but zero help to cancer patients in this country.

As Canadian hospitals were bracing for the looming disaster last week, Aglukkaq was finally in the news -- cheering the Governor General's controversial snack of raw seal's heart.
It's not all the health minister's fault she is being largely decorative.

Like everything in Harper's administration, the isotope crisis and all government communications about it are being managed by the prime minister's spin machine.

The strategy is clear: Keep the media and public attention focused on the woes at Atomic Energy and its leaky reactor, and away from the far more politically damaging health consequences of the resulting isotope shortage.

All media questions are directed to Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt who is responsible for Atomic Energy, while Aglukkaq and officials at Health Canada are effectively gagged.

As part of the smokescreen, Raitt held a press conference last week to announce the planned privatization of Atomic Energy.

The timing of the For Sale sign on the federal nuclear agency in the midst of the medical isotope crisis, of course, was not at all coincidental.

If you can't stand the heat, sell the kitchen.

A press release issued at Raitt's sideshow quotes health minister Aglukkaq -- not in attendance, of course -- acknowledging "the hard work of health professionals, and provincial and territorial governments across Canada who are on the front lines of the current isotope shortage."

Thankfully, someone is.

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