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According to the UK-based experts who signed the letter, these over-zealous new EU safety rules will have disastrous implications for both medical professionals and patients. They claim the new Directive will make illegal up to 30% of the estimated million scans conducted in Britain each year, including half those conducted on children, as well as deny patients access to a procedure that transformed diagnosis and treatment of cancer, heart conditions, multiple sclerosis and back pain. Their letter said that the new rules would also stop surgeons carrying out "interventional procedures", where they use scans while they are operating. They claimed the rules will particularly restrict use of the most modern equipment that produces the clearest images because it emits at the highest frequency.

The UK has been at the forefront of developing MRI technology. Professor Ian Young of Imperial College London, who pioneered the world's first MRI brain scans in 1978 and is a lead signatory of the letter, said the new rules would "endanger patients". The letter is also signed by Sir Peter Mansfield, of Nottingham University, who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his contribution to developing magnetic resonance imaging. Other signatories include the presidents of the Royal College of Radiologists, the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, and the British Institute of Radiology, plus four Fellows of the Royal Society, Britain's most prestigious scientific institution. According to the UK-based The Times Online, Sir Peter said: "I have been distressed to find that the future development of MRI is being stifled by moves to regulate exposure limits that are based on very uncertain science. I believe that the EU Directive and proposed UK legislation will hamper clinical practice unnecessarily, stop future MRI developments in their tracks, and damage UK industry."

Spidla begs to differ.

But Mr Spidla took a different tack shortly after tales of the letter to the UK Health Secretary hit UK newsstands. "The risk of MRI is a real one for everybody who is exposed to it regularly, NOT to parents or their children undergoing treatment", he said in a statement issued by the Commission late on September 21. "I am concerned that those who are protesting are underestimating the radiation of MRI at the expense of the health of their employees", he added. "I am glad that this Directive will give a solid protection to doctors and nurses exposed to MRI."

The former Czech Prime Minister also pointed out that Directive was drafted by the Commission based on results and recommendations issued by the International Commission for Non-ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), an independent, globally-recognised organisation drawing upon the expertise of technicians, scientists and doctors working in the field.

Moreover, Mr Spidla added, the European Parliament and all EU member states - including the UK government - agreed when the Directive was adopted unanimously in April 2004 that it is essential to have the same standard for the health and safety of workers regarding electromagnetic fields since the risk is the same for nurses and doctors throughout Europe. Claims that parents will no longer be allowed to hold the hand of their child during surgery and that doctors and nurses will be prevented from giving proper treatment to patients are thus "completely false".

Children could be most affected, say Directive's critics.

The patients most affected by the changes will probably be anxious children and patients requiring specialised brain scans or heart investigations, according to critics of the new rules. The irony is that, in the absence of a comforting hand, scared children will be more likely to undergo more harmful but less intimidating x-ray imaging. And nervous patients may have to given an anaesthetic before being scanned, subjecting them to an unnecessary risk, according to a September 20 report in science website Another problem will be cleaning the so-called 'magnet' that is part of the MRI machinery, as medical workers will not be able to get so close to it anymore once the new rules are in place.

One irony, however, is that the new rules actually already exist in the UK - as non-binding guidelines. This means that the Directive would turn the UK's current advisory guidelines into law, which are based on the ICNIRP and on the National Radiological Protection Board. While researchers say these guidelines are strict, few people have complained as they are only voluntary.

In their letter, the MRI experts have requested two years to do research that will justify relaxing the limits in the Directive.
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Title Annotation:European Union
Publication:European Report
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 24, 2005

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