Nuclear weapons and public health

Dr Arun Mitra

War is the one of the most serious threat to public health with catastrophic effects on infrastructure & environment and accounts for more deaths and disability than many major diseases combined. It destroys families, communities and sometimes-whole cultures. It channels limited resources away from health and other social needs.
During a visit to the Peace memorial in Hiroshima as a part of the delegation of Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD) to attend the 20th World Congress of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) in 2012, I was wondering, how with the  knowledge of destructive power of weapons, could man build and then use the nuclear arms on human population. To watch the pictures of the destruction while going around the memorial and to read the account of the loss that took place as a result of atomic bombing was a nightmarish experience.
The tiny atomic bombs (as per the standards of the present day nuclear weapons) killed around 140,000 people in Hiroshima and nearly 70,000 in Nagasaki and roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day. Out of 300 doctors 272 died; 1684 of 1780 Nurses died and 42 of 45 hospitals were destroyed. There was complete lack of medical care. High dose of radiations added to the woes. During the IPPNW congress, the Hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bombing) shared their horrific experience of those dreadful moments Some of them could not control their emotions while narrating the incidents. It is difficult to imagine how it must have been to watch nears and dears melt in a matter of seconds as a result of intense heat produced by the detonation.
From the devastation caused at Hiroshima and Nagasaki it was expected that wisdom would prevail and these weapons would be immediately banned. But it did not happen. Instead the number went on increasing. It is assumed that there are nearly 17000 nuclear weapons on earth today which are enough to destroy all the flora and fauna several times over. A hypothetical study named  “Bombing Bombay”  by M. V. Ramana, a physicist who works at the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, reveals that even a small bomb, such as the one used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would kill from 150,000 to 800,000 (8 lakh) people. Up to 2,000,000 (20 lakh) people would be injured. Besides this there would be large amount of collateral damage causing chaos all around.  The radiation effect will last for many years to come.
Leakage in the Fukushima nuclear plant has shown us that such disastrous impact is beyond comprehension. Even after 1 year and 5 months of the disaster when I visited Fukushima, more than 1,60,000 people were still living out of their homes in the make shift houses. A large number of villages will never be inhabited again.
Ira Helfand, Co President of IPPNW in a study on Climate Consequences of Regional Nuclear War has pointed out that even a limited nuclear war could put over two billion people at risk globally. Based on a study with an example, a war between India and Pakistan involving 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs, would kill up to 20 million people outright.
There is thus need to abolish nuclear weapons and there is a great opportunity for this now. The UN General Assembly on 7th July 2017 has with 122 votes in favour and one against passed a treaty which provides a categorical and comprehensive prohibition of nuclear weapons and any activities supporting their possession, deployment and possible use. Its preamble articulates deep concern about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences from any use of nuclear weapons, the consequent need to eliminate them completely, and that they never be used again under any circumstances. It notes that the risks posed by nuclear weapons threaten the security of all humanity and that therefore all states share the responsibility to prevent any use. It recognises that the consequences of nuclear weapons use cannot be adequately addressed, pose grave implications for human survival, the environment, socio-economic development, food security and the health of current and future generations.
Ironically the nine nuclear weapons countries including India and Pakistan did not participate in the UNGA deliberations on 7th July 2017. It is important for India who has been harbinger of peace movement to support the treaty to save resources from arms race to health and education which our population desperately needs. (IPA/The writer is a leading ENT specialist based in Ludhiana. He is the Senior Vice-President of Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD). He is presently the member of the core committee of Alliance of Doctors for Ethical Healthcare in India)

Saturday, 12 August, 2017