BOSTON, Aug. 4 /PRNewswire/ — Since Hiroshima, physicians have frequently warned of the horrifying burn, blast, and radiation casualties a nuclear war would produce. Even in the post-Cold War era, the world faces the continuing risks of proliferation, terrorism, and deliberate or accidental nuclear war. An organized, global campaign led by medical organizations in support of a verifiable and enforceable Nuclear Weapons Convention would make a significant contribution to safeguarding health in 21st century, according to a study published in the August 5 Journal of the American Medical Association.
“With a united, global voice, we in medicine must call for the zero tolerance of nuclear weapons — no different from the world’s zero tolerance of chemical and biological weapons,” says Lachlan Forrow, MD, principal author of the JAMA article, “Medicine and Nuclear War: From Hiroshima to Mutual Assured Destruction to Abolition 2000,” and internist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
The study, co-authored by Victor Sidel, MD, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and former president of the American Public Health Association (APHA), of the Department of Epidemiology and Social Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York, traces the history of nuclear weapons, from a medical perspective, since the blast at Hiroshima in 1945 and reviews the current status of nuclear arsenals and the dangers they pose worldwide. According to the JAMA authors, today’s dangers include the 35,000 warheads that remain in superpower nuclear arsenals, many of them still on hair trigger alert.
For more than 50 years, physicians have played important roles in public policy related to nuclear weapons, first as partners in the government’s civil defense planning in the late 1940s and the 1950s. A decade later, in the 1960s, physicians organized to help end atmospheric nuclear testing and, in the 1980s, doctors would again unite, helping to end the superpowers’ plans to fight a nuclear war.
The authors report that as early as 1946, just one year after the attack on Hiroshima, a high-level U.S. Government committee was urging a United-Nation-enforced global ban on all nuclear weapons. When their efforts failed, the superpowers, led by the United States, entered an era in which having “more” and “better” nuclear weapons was thought to be the best safeguard against nuclear disaster. Dangers of radiation from nuclear weapons was routinely minimized, according to Dr. Forrow, with U.S. General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project testifying before the U.S. Congress that radiation poisoning, was “a very pleasant way to die.”
In 1962, there was an abrupt change in the medical profession’s role in the fight against nuclear weapons. An issue of the New England Journal of Medicine was dedicated to articles on the medical consequences of nuclear war and a new force emerged. Physicians for Social Responsibility was born and began documenting in graphic detail the dire health effects of nuclear explosions. The NEJM articles and an accompanying editorial concluded that physicians, because of their special knowledge of the real medical effects of nuclear weapons also had a special responsibility to prevent their use.
Countless medical studies have documented the toll of nuclear weapons production and testing. According to the authors, the U.S. National Cancer Institute estimated recently that the release of I-131 in fallout from U.S. nuclear test explosions was responsible for nearly 50,000 excess cases of thyroid cancer among Americans. In a separate study by the IPPNW, the physician organization estimated that the Strontium-90, Cesium-137, Carbon-14, and Plutonium-239 released worldwide in all such explosions would be responsible for 430,000 cancer deaths by the year 2000.
In an NEJM article earlier this year, Forrow and his medical colleagues warned that the risk of an “accidental,” nuclear attack has increased recently and called for immediate de-alerting steps to be rapidly followed by a signed global agreement by the Year 2000 committing the world to the elimination of all nuclear weapons within a specified timeframe.
Known as Abolition 2000, the initiative has been endorsed by leading U.S. medical organizations, including the American College of Physicians, the American Public Health Association and Physicians for Social Responsibility, as well as International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and over 1000 other nongovernmental agencies in 75 countries. Over 80 percent of Americans support the abolition of all nuclear weapons even though the U.S. government has yet to seriously question its own commitment to maintaining a nuclear arsenal, says Forrow.
“As physicians we have an opportunity and a responsibility to make our own commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons a living example of the power of our convictions,” says Forrow. “We must do this for ourselves, our families, and the generations that will follow, for as Albert Schweitzer once said, ‘Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing.'”
This study was supported by the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship.