A global shortage of medical isotopes has badly hit the diagnostic and treatment services across the country, forcing scores of hospitals to put off scans and surgeries, even as uncertainty looms large over future supplies.

India, like many countries around the world, imports radioactive isotope molybdenum-99, parent of technetium-99. It is used extensively in imaging to detect diseases of the heart, kidneys, lungs and the spread of cancer.

Last year's shutdown (for repairs) of the National Research Universal Reactor in Ontario, Canada — which meets one-third of the global requirement and outages at a few other similar plants, including the High-Flux Reactor at Petten in the Netherlands — triggered the current crisis.

In a double blow to patients, the shortage not only caused a delay in treatment but also led to a steep hike in diagnostic costs. This was due to a huge increase in the costs by the companies from which the molybdenum-99-techetium-99 column generators are imported by Indian hospitals.

President of the Association of Nuclear Medicine Physicians of India (ANMPI) Kumar Kallur said 90 per cent of the generators were imported from Israel, France, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

The companies have increased the price by 50-70 per cent in the last one year even as there was a 50 per cent shortfall in supplies. “The price is shooting up and the common man is affected,” Dr. Kallur said.

The crisis has spurred the authorities to expedite plans to import a Rs.120-crore plant to produce molybdenum-99 using low-enriched uranium.

The proposed plant would be set up on a turn-key basis in Mumbai under the aegis of the Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology (BRIT), which functions under the Department of Atomic Energy.

The plant — to produce molybdenum-99 through the fission route — would be functional in two years and meet the major requirement of medical isotopes in the country, BRIT chief executive A.K. Kohli told The Hindu from Mumbai.

The plant would also produce radio-iodine and industrial isotopes. Another plant to make column generators was being established in Mumbai and was in advanced stage, Mr. Kohli said.

Executive member and former president of the ANMPI K. Kumaresan said the use of the isotope was essential to ascertain the status of certain diseases, for kidney function assessment and ischemia in myocardium.

“There is need for the country to have medical isotope security,” Dr. Kumaresan said.