The ongoing helium crisis could potentially affect Malta’s hospitals as early as next year.
The gas is used to cool magnets in MRI scanners and to treat respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema.
But global stocks are running low and suppliers in Malta are grappling to get their hands on any helium available.
When asked what the government is doing to plan ahead, Health Minister Chris Fearne said: “We know there is a shortage, not only locally but also abroad. We have no problem with our supply in Mater Dei, we have enough.
“As in all cases of shortages when it comes to medicine we will look at other sources so that we can continue providing the services needed.”
It is unknown exactly how much helium is left in the world but it is estimated to last between 10 and 30 years – with the entire supply coming from just 14 sites. So far, it has always been found by accident when miners have drilled for gas in places like the United States, Algeria, Qatar and Russia.
And while a new discovery has been made in Tanzania, it is yet unknown if it will be enough to resolve the global crisis. About a third of all helium is used in medical instruments, with industrial applications using up most of the rest.
The CEO of St James’ Hospital, Jean Claude Muscat, told Times of Malta: “According to our suppliers we should not expect to face any issues for our requirements and we have a six-month supply.”
Steward Healthcare – which runs Karin Grech and Gozo General hospitals – refused to comment on how much helium was left at its facilities.
Last week, Times of Malta reported on several businesses which are already suffering because of the shortage. One company – Gozo Technical Diving, in Xewkija – fears it may have to close its doors, having lost €20,000 already this year from cancelled bookings.
Importers Multigas say they are currently out of stock since supplies ran out three months ago.
“Due to the global shortages on helium, Multigas has been working closely with helium suppliers to secure supplies in the shortest possible timeframe,” the company’s spokesman said.
“Following a number of attempts, the company has recently succeeded in locating product for the local market and is now expecting shipment confirmation.”
Multigas said it will continue making its best effort to secure additional helium supplies to satisfy its customers’ requirements.
Other industries – such as car manufacturers – use helium to detect leaks in car air-conditioning systems as well as inflate airbags as it can diffuse more quickly than most unreactive gases. It is even used at supermarket checkouts when scanning barcodes by way of using helium-neon gas lasers.
October 25, 2019 Vanessa Conneel