Doctors should still care about the threat of nuclear weapons

JC_ChirgwinJuan Carlos Chirgwin is a family doctor working at CLSC Park Extension health facility in Montreal, Canada


Now that “Canada is back” and “sunny ways” are on the horizon, as Prime Minister Trudeau has said, we in the medical community should also look to the light. True, we made progressive strides in the last half century, producing today’s medical body, which is more ethnically and gender diverse. Medicine has opened up new fields and models of thinking, notably in global health and social determinants of health. Physicians have been spokespersons for worthy causes for decades, but is our medical community paying sufficient attention to the nuclear risk?

An article by Dr. Helfand and Dr. Sidel, “Docs and Nukes---Still a Live Issue” appeared in the NEJM last October. It is a call to doctors worldwide to become aware of the nuclear threat and to join an international campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons. If you have heard enough about global warming, you are probably not aware of its equally evil twin, nuclear war. This threat pushed doctors in the US, the Soviet Union, Western Europe and Canada to form International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), winner of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. Many countries formed affiliates of IPPNW, and Canada has Physicians for Global Survival.

That was during the Cold War, but you would be mistaken if you thought the nuclear threat ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990. Although the absolute number of nuclear warheads dropped from over 60 thousand to current estimates of 15 thousand, these are true weapons of mass destruction. Their blast and thermal effects kill millions of victims at a time, while the still horrific death toll of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was in the thousands given that those bombs were weaker fission weapons. Modern fusion nuclear weapons are more devastating and are aimed at cities. They reach their targets within 30 minutes and 2000 such warheads remain on high alert, meaning that government leaders would only have 15 minutes to decide whether to fire their nuclear arsenal in what would become a global suicide with hardly any life form spared destruction. Dr. Helfand has described in numerous international forums how even a limited nuclear weapon exchange between India and Pakistan could cause a 1.25 degree Celsius drop in global temperatures, crop failures, famine and a mass exodus of survivors fleeing starvation.

What can we do? As doctors we could begin recognizing and acknowledging the danger, as has been done by the American Medical Association and the World Medical Association. Would our Canadian Medical Association agree with their conclusions? How about our Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada or our College of Family Physicians of Canada? We would be stating the obvious: there is no possible medical response in a nuclear weapon attack on any city in the world. Most hospitals would be destroyed along with their physicians and teams. Smaller hospitals spared from the firestorms would need access to a blood supply in quantities we cannot maintain even today in non-war conditions. There are not enough burn units in North America to care for survivors of nuclear strikes. Working with irradiated patients who were improperly decontaminated would render any field hospital impossible to manage, while first responders could not drive through the rubble of downed skyscrapers. This is the ultimate public health threat, in which we doctors are rendered utterly useless.

But despair not. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons needs our involvement in highlighting the medical consequences of nuclear war. Why now? After all, it is 2016! What better time than now.

3 thoughts on “Doctors should still care about the threat of nuclear weapons

  1. Barbara Birkett,MD

    Excellent summary of the problem.Canada should sign the Humanitarian Pledge, signed by 121 countries and initiated by Austria. It recognizes that nuclear war is the ultimate humanitarian disaster and that we should work to "stigmatize ,prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons".. Canada could also push for NATO to change its nuclear doctrine, recognizing that using nuclear weapons as a deterrent is much more risky because of deliberate or accidental launch than not having them.

  2. Richard Denton

    IPPNW condemns today’s test of a nuclear weapon by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). We urge the DPRK government to reconsider its pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, and to join with the majority of States that have pledged to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons because of their unacceptable humanitarian impact.

    We are especially concerned that the DPRK’s claims to have tested a hydrogen bomb, if verified, signal a much more dangerous and irresponsible intent to deploy weapons that threaten all life on Earth. The development of new thermonuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them—whether by the DPRK or any other State—only increases the likelihood that these weapons will be used.

    At the same time, the other nuclear-armed States—the US, Russia, China, France, the UK, India, Pakistan, and Israel—have failed to honor their own nuclear disarmament obligations, have insisted that their security depends upon nuclear weapons, and are engaged in multi-billion dollar programs to modernize their arsenals. While these same countries have condemned the new nuclear test by the DPRK, their hypocrisy provides the government in Pyongyang with the arguments it is now using to justify expansion of its own nuclear weapons program.

    Nuclear weapons must never be used again, under any circumstances. An overwhelming majority of States now recognize, along with civil society, that preventing the use of nuclear weapons requires prohibiting and eliminating them.

    IPPNW calls on all States to use the new Open-Ended Working Group that will convene next month in Geneva to prepare a new treaty banning the development, production, testing, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, deployment, threat of use, or use of nuclear weapons. The nuclear-armed States—including the DPRK—should comply with this new legal instrument—and with their existing obligations under international law—by eliminating all nuclear weapons without further delays or excuses.

  3. Dale Dewar

    Physicians should be looking at war and war-making as a disease. We heartily condemn violence on the playground, spousal violence and public assaults. We wring our hands over the PTSD of veterans and devote dollars for research into treatment - and for that matter, military training to minimize it. When will physicians as a body politic condemn the violence of war?

    War is wasteful of resources - bombed out shells of buildings, bridges and water supplies? Uses inordinate amounts of petroleum products. A disease that kills, maims and displaces people, animals and plants.

    It was a very brave and financial devastating move for Britain when it abolished the slave trade in the 1800's - time to abolish weapons of war, of which nuclear is the suicide machine for humanity.


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