An Interview with Dr. Longoria, Director of the IAEA, and The Country of Belize

This interview was conducted by Scott Lambert:

Recently I had the great pleasure to talk with Dr. Longoria, Director of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), to find out what the IAEA is doing for the country of Belize. Dr. Longoria oversees the assistance that the IAEA provides to the countries in the region of Latin America and all of the Caribbean.

Dr. Longoria, photo: www.iaea.org

Following is my very interesting conversation with Dr. Longoria:

Scott Lambert:

Many times people think that the IAEA is only involved with issues surrounding nuclear weaponry, but I have learned that there are many other areas that the IAEA is involved in that help many countries. Can you give us a brief overview of the various areas that the IAEA is responsible for when working in Latin America and the Caribbean?

Dr. Longoria:

Yes. The IAEA applies nuclear technology in many different areas such as health, the environment, water, food, agriculture, and industry. These are areas in which many countries can benefit from applying nuclear techniques.

Scott Lambert:

Very interesting. So, one of the health areas that you can affect is cancer treatments and radiation therapy?

Dr. Longoria:

Yes.

Scott Lambert:

Is there a process that countries need to go through first before they can actually offer those type of cancer treatment services?

Dr. Longoria:

Yes, the assistance that we provide to the countries in the area of cancer can be subdivided into two areas. One is the diagnostics of cancer and the other is the treatment of cancer with radioactive sources.

In the area of diagnostics, if you need to determine where the cancer is located, then you need to use some special equipment that uses radiation. That will give you a type of x-ray that determines the size and the type of tumor for example.

The other area is involved in the actual treatment once you know where the cancer is. This area uses specialize machines, such as accelerators, that focus radiation and destroys the tumor.

In both cases you use radiation; one to diagnose and the other as treatment.

Cancer cell

Scott Lambert:

Great. With that in mind, how do you help countries like Belize?

Dr. Longoria:

As a member of the IAEA for many years now, Belize can submit a project in this area to the IAEA saying, “We need to improve this facility to treat a specialized cancer.” (Let’s say cervical cancer for example.) “So, we need to install new equipment and for that new equipment we need to be trained, or we need to send our doctors and our technologists to be trained.”

We in the IAEA then provide Belize with that training. For example, right now we are going to send a doctor, a technologist, and a nurse to a specialized center in Latin America where they can see what they will be doing with equipment that Belize is going to acquire in the future. So, we are focusing a lot on building capacity on the human resource side. We usually don’t provide very large pieces of equipment because of financial constraints. But anything that we can do to help in training the medical profession on how to deal with these new technologies, or even how to deal with radiation in general, is something that we provide.

For example, in the case of cancer in Belize, they have some facilities for treating some types of cancer, but not all of them. So, one of the areas where we can help Belize is to help the country decide what sort of technology and what type of hospitals they need, or what cancers they can specialize in, etc. so that the projects and the investments for Belize are sustainable and efficient. For a country the size of Belize, you might not need the same thing as you would need in Brazil. And that’s what we’re helping the different countries to decide — what is best for each particular country.

Belize on the map

Scott Lambert:

Ok, so it sounds like there is a process that you go through to help evaluate the technology and then provide the training for the countries. How far off would you say Belize is at this point from making decisions on investments and then being able to provide services after training? Are they a year out, two years out, or is it difficult to say at this point?

Dr. Longoria:

Well, there are some existing facilities (http://belizecancercenter.org/) and some hospitals in Belize that are already giving certain types of treatments. For those facilities, in the coming two years, there is a project where we are going to help them buy certain types of equipment and we will train some people to use that equipment. It will only be for those existing facilities though.

However, Belize is thinking that they may be in need of a national oncological center. Now, you’re talking about something a bit bigger in scale where you need to consider the entire nation. We can help Belize determine the technology, decide on the type of installations they need, the type of people that need to be trained, and we can help them with that training. We can even help the authorities in their decision process of what they want to do by sending the decision-makers to other countries that have already gone through the same paces and decisions.

Scott Lambert:

So, the facilities in Belize are limited in the sense that there are only a certain number of facilities that can do cancer treatments? Or is the country limited more in the respect that they can only treat certain cancers and not other cancers?

Dr. Longoria:

The current facilities can only treat certain types of cancer, and their facilities are quite limited in the use of radiation, for example, for the treatment of cancer. Usually in an oncological center, you will have larger machines, like an accelerator, for example. But Belize does not have an accelerator for treating cancer patients. So, if Belize is thinking of installing this type of technology, we can help them decide the type of machine they need, the type of facilities they need to build to house the machine, and the type of human resources that they need to be trained.

Scott Lambert:

So, what type of role does an Ambassador of the country of Belize play in helping to get the cancer treatment centers that Belize needs? Has the Ambassador of Belize been able to bring more awareness to the situation? What’s your observation of his involvement?

Dr. Longoria:

IAEA — International Atomic Energy Agency

Well, certainly the assistance that the IAEA has provided to Belize changed dramatically since Ambassador Joel Nagel has been in Vienna. Before him, there wasn’t a representative for Belize here in Vienna and that, well, is a bit of an obstacle because you don’t get things done quickly then.

Since Ambassador Nagel has been here (in Vienna), he’s been actively involved in the program. He follows up on the projects that we have for Belize, and he’s also paying attention to what is needed, making the connection with the relevant authorities in the country. And since his involvement, the level of engagement between the government of Belize and the agency has increased substantially. It started as an awareness of what the agency could do for Belize. We were working with Belize in the past, but the level of engagement was, I would say, low compared to what we are doing now.

As well as working with Belize in the area of cancer, we are also working with them in the area of food and agriculture, water, etc. So, there are other fields that Belize is now benefiting from within the IAEA agency, which they previously didn’t do. And all of this is thanks to Ambassador Joel Nagel, that, dare I say, well, he’s one of the most active Ambassadors here in Vienna for the benefit of the country of Belize, and also for the benefit of the region. Because not only do we have projects specifically for one country, but also for the region.

If you think, for example, of problems in the Caribbean ocean, well, there are techniques that are used to analyze certain types of contaminants in the water. We help the countries with that. And if you’re talking about problems in the ocean that involve a group of countries, not just one, Belize is one of them. And through our regional project, Belize is now involved. Before, the involvement of Belize was a bit low, but now I think that it’s at par with all of the countries in the region.

Ocean contamination

Scott Lambert:

Oh, that interesting. I really hadn’t thought about that. Obviously when you are dealing with the ocean, everyone in the region is affected by that. So, it sounds like Ambassador Nagel has also been involved in things that affect the entire region of Belize and the Caribbean and Latin America while participating with the IAEA.

Dr. Longoria:

Yes. Ambassador Nagel has also been able to talk to other Ambassadors from the region and establish some contacts to submit regional projects and things like that.

Scott Lambert:

OK. Wonderful. So, it sounds like Ambassadors for a country like Belize can have a pretty dramatic impact, at least in playing a role with the IAEA and all of the different areas that the IAEA operates within. And, I guess, depending upon the activity of the Ambassador, he or she can have a really big impact on the opportunity within the country to do things such as cancer treatment, clean water, and other aspects that the IAEA helps with. Does an Ambassador play a key role in that?

Dr. Longoria:

Yes, absolutely. The IAEA has no offices in the other countries. So pretty much everything is done from Vienna. So, the contact here in Vienna is essential because the channel to actually get to the authorities in the government and to establish a communication channel is greatly expedited if you are here in Vienna.

Scott Lambert:

And so, have you seen Ambassador Nagel also work pretty effectively with the other Ambassadors in the Latin American region as well as working with the IAEA?

Dr. Longoria:

Yes, absolutely, especially with the Caribbean countries. For example, we have a project that involves English-speaking Caribbean countries, and we invited them here for an event. And Ambassador Nagel was very much engaged, so that the relevant people from Belize could attend, and they did. So now we are bearing the fruits of that activity that was done by the Ambassador.

Scott Lambert:

That sounds wonderful. Well, this has been quite enlightening for me, Dr. Longoria. I wanted to get any final thoughts that you see as opportunities for the country of Belize, and how it can benefit from the services of the IAEA. Are there any other topics or examples of how Belize will benefit from the working relationship between Ambassador Nagel and the IAEA?

Dr. Longoria:

Yes. For example, in the area of food and agriculture, there is an insect that attacks the fruit called the Mediterranean fruit fly. This fly can represent a problem because it affects the fruit and produce. And when this fly affects the fruit, they cannot export the fruit because it is damaged.

A female Mediterranean fruit-fly (Ceratitis capitata). Image by https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Alvesgaspar

Through a nuclear technique using radiation, we can sterilize these flies. And in fact, one of the biggest sterilization insect plants is in Guatemala, just next to Belize. And if you want to eradicate this pest from the region, then all of the countries have to be involved. Through the radiation of sterile insects, the IAEA has helped the countries to eradicate this pest from most of Central America, but we still have to work with other countries in the Caribbean. When there are problems that affect more than one country, it’s imperative that all of the countries take part. So, Belize can benefit from having a program related to the sterilization of Mediterranean fruit flies.

Scott Lambert:

Now, that’s fascinating. I guess Ambassador Nagel is also working with the other Ambassadors, along with the IAEA in the region, to help address the fruit fly situation, huh?

Dr. Longoria:

That’s correct, yes.

Scott Lambert:

Ok, well I would like your final thoughts on if you think Ambassador Nagel is doing an effective job as an Ambassador for the country of Belize?

Dr. Longoria:

Ambassador Joel Nagel in Austria

Absolutely. As I mentioned before, previously the engagement with Belize was at a different level. Since Ambassador Joel Nagel was appointed, he’s been very actively involved in all of the activities of the IAEA. And you can see the results of that now with the level of engagement that we have with Belize. We have more projects, we have more training, and we are interacting much more with the different institutions within Belize. We have sent more people and more missions. I have personally visited Belize and I could see the impact of the assistance that the agency has provided in the different areas where we contribute.

Scott Lambert:

That is great news. Thank you, Dr. Longoria, for taking the time to talk with me. This has been a very informative session. I appreciate the time that you have given to us today to talk about the IAEA and the impact that you are having in the Belize.