Medical professionals and the general public fear health crises such as disease epidemics and natural disasters that could quickly overwhelm hospitals and medical staff. This fear has led us to attempt to reduce these potential catastrophes through quarantine, in the case of epidemics, and early warning systems for earthquakes and tsunamis. These events are entirely outside of human control; we can only minimise the damage. However, this is not the case with weapons of mass destruction. The UK’s nuclear weapon stockpile, Trident, is relatively small when compared to the number held worldwide. Despite this, if Trident’s weapons are ever detonated, it would lead to an enormous and devastating loss of human life. New research has shown that the bulk of suffering and loss of life would actually occur after the initial blast, during a period of referred to as a ‘nuclear winter’. This nuclear-induced ‘natural’ disaster would have a profound and severe effect on the Earth’s climate by greatly reducing the amount of sunlight. This would create a domino effect, cooling the planet and causing a mass crop failure.
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) have been researching the potential medical effects of nuclear weapons since 1985, and recently released a report using data from a team of climate scientists and medical professionals. The report uses climate change modelling on crop yields to predict the effect of a nuclear winter on the world’s food supply. Their conclusion: a decade of famine. This may seem abstract but, the Cold War, human error, and increasingly, the threat of nuclear terrorism, have brought us dangerously close to a reoccurrence of the terrible human suffering that happened in Japan in 1945.
More specifically, a nuclear winter would lead to a 10% decline in US corn production, and 7% in soybean production. China would experience a 10% decline in rice production, and a 50% decline in wheat. 250 million people would be added to the rolls of the malnourished as food prices would increase, and the existing 870 million already suffering from malnutrition would go down to a daily calorie intake of roughly 1500. Further, the world holds only 80 days worth of food stocks. As the first harvest fails, dwindling supplies of food and fuel for households, industry and transport would have global effects; starvation-induced deaths would increase rapidly.
The report lists many other knock-on effects similar to the devastation experienced during natural disasters. As heath professionals, we are uniquely placed to educate the general public and the authorities on the medical effects of a nuclear war. Unlike a natural disaster, a nuclear winter is entirely preventable; through following the nuclear proliferation treaties already in existence, and by taking steps to decrease our nuclear stockpile, we have the power to avoid the harmful effects of a nuclear-induced famine.
The authorities need to be fully aware that under such devastation, medical services would be useless and no degree of medical training could alleviate the suffering of the billions of affected people.
Frank Boulton is a retired NHS physician and university lecturer (haematology). He is currently board member and Hon Treasurer of “Medact” www.medact.org Medact is a charity for health professionals and others working to improve health worldwide, and is the UK affiliate of IPPNW.
I declare that that I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.