Security alarms for radiotherapy patients

Patients receiving treatment with radioisotopes should be advised that they may trigger radiation alarms, warn doctors.

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By  Joanne Bladd Published  September 13, 2006

Patients receiving treatment with radioisotopes should be advised that they may trigger radiation alarms, warn doctors. Their advice follows the case of a patient who activated an airport radiation detector six weeks after receiving radioiodine therapy. He was detained and subjected to extensive search and questioning. Luckily he was carrying his treatment card with him and was released after a prolonged delay and considerable embarrassment, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) reports. Treatment of disease with radiotherapy is common (usually with x-rays or ingestion of radioisotopes). Radioisotopes are used in many diagnostic and therapeutic procedures. These render patients temporarily radioactive, which can activate radiation detectors. But doctors show a worrying lack of awareness about such potential problems and, as a result, patients are not adequately warned about persisting radioactivity and precautions that need to be taken. Researchers at City Hospital, Birmingham, say the incident has prompted a change in policy. Their Nuclear Medicine department now issues all patients receiving radioiodine treatment with a radionuclide card that reads: “Airport alarms may be triggered for up to 12 weeks after receiving your therapy dose.” When the team researched the medical literature, they found four other cases that further highlight the problem. One involved two patients attempting to enter the White House in the US for a public tour four days after a thallium scan, and another involved a man triggering the security alarm at his bank, again after an earlier thallium scan. Patients receiving Iodine-131 therapy should be particularly careful because they may trigger an alarm up to 95 days after treatment, the team explains. “Airports worldwide are deploying more sensitive radiation detection systems and hence one would expect more such cases unless we take responsibility of forewarning our patients,” the team says. “We felt it was important to dissipate this information in the hope that this will prevent further unnecessary harassment and embarrassment to patients.” An editorial in the BMJ suggests that, based on current evidence, doctors should advise patients who are about to receive radioisotopes to avoid close contact with other people, don’t try to conceive, and take their radiation certificates when flying. This advice is likely to be incorporated into new guidelines on the use of radioiodine for thyroid disease that are due to be published later this year by the Royal College of Physicians.

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