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Why The Global Helium Shortage May Be The World’s Next Medical Crisis

Nov 10, 2022 via Forbes

Imagine waking up one morning to learn that your mother is exhibiting slurred speech, difficulty understanding your words, and has weakness and numbness on one side of her body. Immediately recognizing that these are the cardinal signs and symptoms of a stroke, you rush her to the Emergency Room to get diagnosed and treated. To your dismay, the Emergency Physicians tell you they cannot confirm your suspicion of a stroke diagnosis in your mother because the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine is non-operable. This then delays potential lifesaving treatment for your mother, leading to frustration and anxiety for your family.

The above scenario could very well be a reality for some if not many because of the scarcity of helium. This nonrenewable element is found deep within the Earth’s crust and is in short supply, according to NBC reports. The global helium shortage is due mainly to decreased supply from major producers, including Russia which has curtailed production since the war in Ukraine, according to The Harvard Crimson. Helium is a necessary element needed for the successful operation of all MRIs. Most MRIs require thousands of liters of liquid helium in order to keep their magnets cool for optimal function. As helium dwindles in production, patients are at risk of foregoing MRI studies that are necessary to establish important diagnoses and guide treatment of serious diseases and illnesses.

In 2021 alone, approximately 38 million MRI examinations were performed in the United States, according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. MRI is an imaging modality used in imaging centers worldwide that provides the best contrast resolution of any imaging modality currently in use for clinical care. For example, MRI can show details in tissues in the body such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bone that are not seen as well in modalities such as X-rays and CT (Computed Tomography).

Radiologists, physicians that interpret diagnostic images and perform minimally invasive image-guided procedures, rely heavily on MRI to make critical diagnoses daily that affect millions of patients. In addition to stroke, MRI remains pivotal in diagnosing tumors all over the body, fractures that may not be initially seen on X-rays, traumatic injuries to the spinal cord, and bone infections to name a few entities.

To put the importance of MRI in further perspective, consider a patient with a fever and a foot wound. A primary consideration for this patient would be whether the bones in the foot are infected. An x-ray can lag behind MRI in showing bone infection, or osteomyelitis, by as many as 21 days, while MRI will show signs of infection much earlier since MRI shows details of the bone architecture that cannot be seen on X-ray. A diagnosis of bone infection may require 4-6 weeks of Intravenous antibiotics, which can result in preventing a foot amputation if the infection were to go untreated. Relying on X-ray alone without MRI can lead to devastating outcomes for patients, as would be the case in many cases of osteomyelitis.

The use of MRI in diagnosing foot infection is just one of many applications for the critical role it plays in patient care. Given the importance of MRI in the medical profession, the helium crisis should be front and center for politicians, policy makers, physicians, patients, and the general public to discuss and find sustainable solutions for. The scarcity of helium is a serious matter and affects all of us directly or indirectly.

Industry, tech, and medical professionals must work together to suggest feasible strategies to tackle this critical shortage. More efficient and judicious use of MRI will likely be needed in the future to ensure sustainability. In addition, finding creative ways to recycle helium have already been suggested and adopted by some institutions across the country. For example, a collaborative team of physicians, scientists, and researchers at the University of California- San Francisco are finding innovative ways to recycle helium, leading to cost savings of at least $120,000 per year. Scientists and researchers at the University of California- Los Angeles have similarly initiated recycling efforts that have led to recovering over 90% of the helium that gets boiled off after use in a MRI magnet.

The helium crisis offers an opportunity for professionals from different sectors to come and work together for the common goal of healthcare sustainability. The future of your loved ones may depend on it.

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