Treatment that backfired Nasal radium therapy: State inquiry needs to determine extent of problems.

March 21, 1998

DURING THE 1940s, '50s and '60s, tens of thousands of Marylanders -- children, mostly -- received a treatment called nasal radium therapy, in which a radium-tipped probe was inserted in the nostrils. At the time the procedure, pioneered by doctors at Johns Hopkins, looked like a successful way to treat hearing loss, tonsillitis and colds. Today, it appears to have been a serious mistake.

Though experts disagree on the extent to which the therapy increases the chance of cancer and thyroid problems, there have been enough studies and anecdotal evidence to support legislation to create a state panel to examine the risks, devise a system of alerting the 67,000 Marylanders believed to have had this treatment and recommend remedial action.

The federal government, which used nasal radium therapy to treat pilots and submariners during the post-World War II era, has found enough reason for concern to track down veterans and warn them of the risk. Civilians have no less an interest in knowing what kind of health problems they may face.

Maryland's high cancer rate has long been a puzzle and a source of concern. Learning more about how frequently this therapy was used here -- one expert reports that Maryland had the highest per capita use in the nation -- and what has happened to the people who had it could provide a clue to this phenomenon.

It is unlikely that even the most diligent task force will be able to locate everyone who had nasal radium therapy. Many records are gone, along with many doctors who administered the treatments. But people who know they had the treatments would have a place to turn for information, and others who suspect they had may be prompted to ask questions about their medical history.

Lessons from this story apply to contemporary medical practice. One is the importance of keeping health records so it is possible to find people who may be at risk from flawed procedures. The other is that the medical profession must always err on the side of caution where new treatments are concerned.

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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