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Infectious Diseases

Nuclear technology saves lives in innovative ways to combat deadly infectious diseases in Canada and around the world. In doing so, the nuclear industry has shown its extensive expertise and an ability to adapt quickly to fast-spreading microbes.

COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus that created a global pandemic. It spread internationally in 2020, infecting millions and killing hundreds of thousands. The Canadian nuclear industry helped fight this global problem:

  • Bruce Power donated personal protective equipment (PPE) to front-line workers and shipped cobalt-60 to Nordion for distribution to medical facilities, as the isotope was urgently needed for sterilization of medical equipment.
  • Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) adapted its 3D printers to make face shields for health-care workers, and designed and built several tools for fighting the virus, including a low-cost, negative-pressure isolation room. CNL also donated PPE to hospitals and care facilities.
  • Ontario Power Generation donated PPE to the Ontario Ministry of Health for distribution, including more than one million surgical masks, and adapted its 3D printers to make face shields. OPG also teamed up with Feed Ontario with a $500,000 donation to launch an emergency food-box program.

These are only a few examples of the nuclear industry’s contribution, which continues to grow as the fight against COVID-19 progresses. But there are other infectious diseases that nuclear has help combat.

Ebola is a virus that spreads through direct contact of bodily fluids. It has severe and rapid symptoms that kill about half of infected patients. An outbreak in 2014 drew international attention and a response from the nuclear industry. Because the symptoms can be hard to distinguish from normal flu, and the virus is highly contagious, rapid detection is vital to curbing its spread. One of the detection techniques, called polymerase chain reaction, depends on radioisotopes to detect fluorescent molecules that attach to DNA associated with the virus.

Malaria kills more than 400,000 people every year, most of them in Africa and most of them children under five. One of the key approaches to stopping malaria is to target the mosquitoes that carry the disease, but their resistance to traditional insecticides is growing. An innovative alternative is the sterile-insect technique, which uses X-ray and gamma radiation to sterilize male insects, so they cannot reproduce.

Zika is a virus that is passed along through Aedes mosquitoes and can cause devastating birth defects. It drew international attention when it spread outside of its usual equatorial zone in 2007. As with malaria, the sterile-insect technique has been used to stop male mosquitoes from reproducing.

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