REDUCING THE RISKS OF NUCLEAR WAR – THE ROLE OF HEALTH PROFESSIONALS

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Kamran Abbasi
Parveen Ali
Virginia Barbour
Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo
Marcel GM Olde Rikkert
Richard Horton
Robert Mash
Carlos Monteiro
Elena N. Naumova
Eric J. Rubin
Peush Sahni
James Tumwine
Paul Yonga
Chris Zelinski
Arun Mitra
Tilman Ruff
Andy Haines
Ira Helfand

Abstract

 


 In January, 2023, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward to 90 s before midnight, reflecting the growing risk of nuclear war.1 In August, 2022, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world is now in “a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.2 The danger has been underlined by growing ten­sions between many nuclear armed states.1,3 As editors of health and medical journals worldwide, we call on health professionals to alert the public and our leaders to this major danger to public health and the essential life support systems of the planet—and urge action to prevent it.


 


 Current nuclear arms control and non-proliferation efforts are inadequate to protect the world’s popula­tion against the threat of nuclear war by design, error, or miscalculation. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) commits each of the 190 participating nations ”to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear dis­armament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”.4 Progress has been disappointingly slow and the most recent NPT review conference in 2022 ended without an agreed statement.5 There are many exam­ples of near disasters that have exposed the risks of depending on nuclear deterrence for the indefinite fu­ture.6 Modernisation of nuclear arsenals could increase risks: for example, hypersonic missiles decrease the time available to distinguish between an attack and a false alarm, increasing the likelihood of rapid escala­tion.


Any use of nuclear weapons would be catastroph­ic for humanity. Even a “limited” nuclear war involving only 250 of the 13 000 nuclear weapons in the world could kill 120 million people outright and cause global climate disruption leading to a nuclear famine, putting 2 billion people at risk.7,8 A large-scale nuclear war be­tween the USA and Russia could kill 200 million people or more in the near term, and potentially cause a glob­al “nuclear winter” that could kill 5–6 billion people, threatening the survival of humanity.7,8 Once a nuclear weapon is detonated, escalation to all-out nuclear war could occur rapidly. The prevention of any use of nucle­ar weapons is therefore an urgent public health priority and fundamental steps must also be taken to address the root cause of the problem—by abolishing nuclear weapons.


The health community has had a crucial role in ef­forts to reduce the risk of nuclear war and must con­tinue to do so in the future.9 In the 1980s the efforts of health professionals, led by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), helped to end the Cold War arms race by educating policy mak­ers and the public on both sides of the Iron Curtain about the medical consequences of nuclear war. This was recognised when the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the IPPNW.10 (http://www.ippnw.org).


In 2007, the IPPNW launched the International Cam­paign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which grew into a global civil society campaign with hundreds of partner organisations. A pathway to nuclear abolition was cre­ated with the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017, for which the Internation­al Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was award­ed the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. International medical organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the IPPNW, the World Medical Associ­ation, the World Federation of Public Health Associa­tions, and the International Council of Nurses, had key roles in the process leading up to the negotiations, and in the negotiations themselves, presenting the scientif­ic evidence about the catastrophic health and environ­mental consequences of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. They continued this important collaboration during the First Meeting of the States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which currently has 92 signatories, including 68 member states.11


We now call on health professional associations to inform their members worldwide about the threat to human survival and to join with the IPPNW to support efforts to reduce the near-term risks of nuclear war, including three immediate steps on the part of nucle­ar-armed states and their allies: first, adopt a no first use policy;12 second, take their nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert; and, third, urge all states involved in current conflicts to pledge publicly and unequivocally that they will not use nuclear weapons in these con­flicts. We further ask them to work for a definitive end to the nuclear threat by supporting the urgent com­mencement of negotiations among the nuclear-armed states for a verifiable, timebound agreement to elimi­nate their nuclear weapons in accordance with com­mitments in the NPT, opening the way for all nations to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.


The danger is great and growing. The nuclear armed states must eliminate their nuclear arsenals be­fore they eliminate us. The health community played a decisive part during the Cold War and more recently in the development of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nu­clear Weapons. We must take up this challenge again as an urgent priority, working with renewed energy to reduce the risks of nuclear war and to eliminate nucle­ar weapons.

Article Details

How to Cite
1.
Kamran Abbasi, Parveen Ali, Virginia Barbour, Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, Marcel GM Olde Rikkert, Richard Horton, Robert Mash, Carlos Monteiro, Elena N. Naumova, Eric J. Rubin, Peush Sahni, James Tumwine, Paul Yonga, Zelinski C, Arun Mitra, Tilman Ruff, Andy Haines, Ira Helfand. REDUCING THE RISKS OF NUCLEAR WAR – THE ROLE OF HEALTH PROFESSIONALS. J Postgrad Med Inst [Internet]. 2023 Aug. 27 [cited 2024 Jun. 17];37(3):159-60. Available from: https://jpmi.org.pk/index.php/jpmi/article/view/3291
Section
Editorial
Author Biography

Chris Zelinski, University of Winchester and Vice-President, World Association of Medical Editors, Winchester, UK

 

 

References

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