World Medical Journal

The Growing Threat of Nuclear War and the Role of the Health Community

Ira Helfand, MD; Andy Haines, MD; Tilman Ruff, FRACP; Hans Kristensen; Patricia Lewis, PhD Zia Mian, PhD


January 03, 2017

In This Article

The Role of the Healthcare Community

Given the potential for nuclear war to occur as a result of error and the lack of evidence that a planned medical response can have any perceptible impact on the outcome, it has been suggested that "support for deterrence with these weapons as a policy for national or global security appears to be incompatible with basic principles of medical ethics and international law. The primary medical responsibility under such circumstances is to participate in attempts to prevent nuclear war."[28]

New evidence about the pervasive threats to health of the detonation of even a small percentage of the world's nuclear arsenals, together with the failure of the nonproliferation treaty to prevent the retention and modernization of nuclear weapons, has given impetus to a new global movement to ban nuclear weapons. The health professions therefore have a central role in advocating for the abolition of nuclear weapons, reflecting their ethical responsibility to protect health and prevent illness.

In 2007, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) founded the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)—a broad global campaign coalition working for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. ICAN now has 440 partner organizations in 98 countries, is the lead civil society partner for the governments hosting the humanitarian conferences, and continues to grow as a major civil society coordinating initiative and partner for governments serious about the humanitarian imperative for nuclear disarmament.

In Moscow in October 2015, the World Medical Association (WMA) general assembly unanimously updated its Statement on Nuclear Weapons, adopted in 1998 and amended in 2008, requesting all national medical associations to educate their publics and governments about the health impacts of nuclear war and "to join the WMA in supporting this Declaration and to urge their respective governments to work to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons."[29]

In April 2016, the WMA joined with IPPNW, the World Federation of Public Health Associations, and the International Council of Nurses in submitting to the UN Working Group the first such united statement detailing the health and humanitarian imperative to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons.[30]

All other global health progress and efforts could come to naught if we do not succeed in eradicating nuclear weapons before they are again used in war. There has never been a better opportunity, nor greater need, for united and effective health professional engagement to remove the most acute existential threat to global health and survival.


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