Kampala: For more than three years, hundreds of cancer patients in Mulago Hospital and workers at the Cancer Institute were unknowingly absorbing doses of radiation as a result of using a “condemned radiotherapy cancer machine”, officials from Atomic Energy Council (AEC) have said.
The officials told MPs on the National Resources Committee yesterday that when they conducted the radiation safety inspections at the Radiotherapy Department, now under Uganda Cancer Institute in 2013, they found that radiation was active, recommending that the licence for the cancer machine that gave way in 2016, should not be renewed.
Mr Deo Ssekyanzi, a senior radiation protection officer at the AEC, told MPs that although the radiation source is supposed to be changed after 10 years, the hospital was still using a machine which would have been shipped back to China in 2012 for disposal.
The radiotherapy machine that broke down was a donation from China. Ghana also benefited from this donation. However, Ghana decommissioned the machine years back yet Uganda continued to use what MPs called “a condemned out-dated machine”.
The Cobalt 60 machine was installed in 2002 but the radiation source was not changed.
“We found that the output (dose rate) of Co-60 treatment unit was measuring 0.289 Gy/min which is below the recommended minimum of 0.4 Gy/min,” Mr Ssekyanzi said.
“The Cobalt 60 machine is supposed to be automated, but it got stuck three times in our presence and a radiation worker had to enter the machine to fix the problem before it could start again,” he added.
Explaining the use of a machine with low dose rate treatment, Mr Deogratias Noah Luwalira, the AEC Secretary, said this may either make the tumor cells to be radioadaptive hence exacerbating the sickness, increase the toxicity (damage) on normal tissues or increase the treatment time creating an overload of cancer patients.
The AEC also found that the mechanical system for the source movement was faulty.
“This increases their [patients] probability to suffer from the associated radiation sickness, including but not limited to cancers. The treatment adds little or no value since the equipment is defective,” Mr Ssekyanzi, told MPs who seemed bewildered and wondering why the machine was still being used until it totally broke down last month.
Lacor hospital machine
Although these defects were first highlighted in 2013, AEC did several follow-up inspections with the latest being this month, where they raised similar concerns.
MPs also heard the cancer machine for Lacor Hospital broke down in 2011 and that radioactive materials were stolen from the cancer institute in 2006 and police authorities have failed to recover them. They said these dangerous substances could be in the public or sold outside the county.
Stuck with Cobolt-60 machine: AEC also informed MPs that Mulago hospital had misplaced the papers and is currently stuck with the cancer machine. Since the machine is unrepairable, AEC warned it would be “very dangerous” for the Cobalt 60 machine to remain in a country where there is no disposal unit. The AEC is asking for Shs2.2b to construct a disposal plant.