As physicians we spend our professional lives applying scientific facts to the health and well being of our patients. When it comes to public health threats like TB, polio, cholera, AIDS and others where there is no cure, our aim is to prevent what we cannot cure. It is our professional, ethical and moral obligation to educate and speak out on these issues.
That said, the greatest imminent existential threat to human survival is potential of global nuclear war. We have long known that the consequences of large scale nuclear war could effectively end human existence on the planet. Yet there are more than 17,000 nuclear warheads in the world today with over 95% controlled by the U.S. and Russia. The international community is intent on preventing Iran from developing even a single nuclear weapon. And while appropriate to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, there is precious little effort being spent on the much larger and more critical problem of these arsenals.
Despite the Cold War mentality of the U.S. and Russia with their combined arsenals and a reliance on shear luck that a nuclear war is not started by accident, intent or cyber attack, we now know that the planet is threatened by a limited regional nuclear war which is a much more real possibility.
A report released Tuesday by the Nobel Laureate International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and its US counterpart Physicians for Social Responsibility documents in fact the humanitarian consequences of such a limited nuclear war. Positing a conflict in South Asia between India and Pakistan, involving just 100 Hiroshima sized bombs— less than 0.5% of the world’s nuclear arsenal— would put two billion people’s health and wellbeing at risk. The local effects would be devastating. More than 20 million people would be dead in a week from the explosions, firestorms and immediate radiation effects. But the global consequences would be far worse.