Over 500 bone marrow transplant centres across Europe have been asked to be on standby to treat victims of radiation exposure from Japan's earthquake- and tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant.

News agency AFP reported that the appeal came on Tuesday from the European Group for Blood and Marrow Transplantation (EBMT) which has headquarters in Barcelona, Spain.

EBMT contacted all its 536 centres by email, asking them if they would be able to treat patients suffering from radiation exposure.

Across its member centres, the EBMT has about 2,500 specialist doctors who can treat people with bone marrow problems.

The group drew up plans for treating radiation victims after the terror attacks of 11 September 2001.

EBMT President, Professor Alejandro Madrigal, said the group's Nuclear Accident Committee has been "practising training and education and selecting centres of excellence in Europe that could respond to a general emergency in Europe or the world, such as could potentially happen in Japan."

All six of the Fukushima plant's reactors are experiencing problems following last Friday's earthquake and tsunami, in which an estimated 10,000 people have died.

It is not clear how many victims will need help, but there is concern is for the 50 or so engineers that are battling around the clock to stop a major radiation leak.

The head of EBMT's Nuclear Accident Committee, Professor Ray Powles, told the press that they were working on the possibility they may have to treat 200 people or more, but he thinks "it is remote that that would happen".

In a telephone interview with AFP, Powles said governments and hospitals would be prepared to ease restrictions on immigration and costs of transport and treatment.

If it so happens that this does become a major radiation problem with hundreds of victims, then the "humanitarian response on a worldwide basis will be huge," said Powles.

The email EBMT sent to its member centres refers to "real concern" that the workers in the affected Japanese nuclear power station may receive "doses or whole body radiation over the next week or so", reported AFP.

In the "unlikely event that many Japanese power station workers are irradiated (but not contaminated)," said the EBMT email, they wish "to evaluate the capacity to provide humanitarian treatment in EU countries if Japanese medical resources are overwhelmed".

Powles said the workers at the plant will not suffer effects from radiation for another three days, which is why they wanted to put a plan in place three days in advance.

The EBMT have contacted Japan directly, and have also made their services available to them through the World Health Organization.

Powles said it would not be difficult to handle and treat the patients, the EBMT centres already have a training programme, and a DVD containing about six or seven critical lectures. It would only take experts about three hours to "brush up" on the special needs of radiation victims.

He predicted that some patients might need bone marrow transplants, while others might "just need antibiotics or they might need antibiotics and other drugs as well as blood and platelets. It's not that dissimilar to treating leukaemia," Powles said in a BBC report.

Main sources: AFP, BBC.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD