'The danger is great and growing': Healthcare experts call on industry to reduce the risks of nuclear war

The time is now 90 seconds to midnight, according to the Doomsday Clock, which scientists use to estimate how close humanity might be to blowing itself up with nuclear weapons.

Action must be taken on the part of the world’s healthcare professionals, and taken now, to avert a calamity that would claim anywhere from 120 million lives (in a “limited nuclear war” in which “only” 250 of the approximately 13,000 nuclear bombs in stock would be used) to 200 million or more lives in a full-out war between the U.S. and Russia. Such an exchange could possibly cause a nuclear winter that would be the end of humanity.

The editors of some of the most prestigious medical journals in the world let out a clarion call about the growing dangers of nuclear war in an editorial published Aug. 1 in JAMA. “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,” the editorial states. “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.”

Aside from the journals in the JAMA family, a sampling of signatories includes editors of The New England Journal of Medicine, The Dutch Journal of Medicine, the Medical Journal of Australia, The Lancet and the East African Medical Journal.

The journal editors note that United Nations Secretary General António Guterres last year warned that the world teeters closer to nuclear war now than at any time not seen since the Cold War, in which the U.S. and the former Soviet Union held each other at bay with a policy of mutually assured destruction.

“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,” the editorial states.

The writers cite the important role healthcare professionals played in the past in trying to turn back the Doomsday Clock. They write that in the 1980s the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) helped end the Cold War nuclear arms race by explaining to policymakers on both sides what the terrible consequences of such a war might be. For those efforts, the IPPNW won the Nobel Peace Price in 1985.

The editorial also notes that the IPPNW in 2007 launched the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which spurred a global effort in which many healthcare organizations participated. The campaign spelled out a way to abolish nuclear weapons which was incorporated into the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, whose organizers also received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

“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; 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.”

The treaty has 92 signatories.

The editorial urges healthcare professionals around the world to campaign for an immediate start of negotiations among countries with nuclear weapons to hammer out a verifiable agreement to eliminate their nuclear arsenals—an agreement with deadlines.

“The danger is great and growing,” the editorial states. “The nuclear armed states must eliminate their nuclear arsenals before they eliminate us.”