Nobel Prize winner gives lecture about nuclear war

A Nobel Peace Prize winner told 20 USF medical students to “hold their government leaders responsible and do the right thing” when it comes to countries participating in nuclear warfare.

The Student Physicians for Social Responsibility (SPSR) hosted Dr. Ira Helfand at the Medical Center Ambulatory Clinic (MDA) building Monday night to discuss the medical effects of nuclear war in a presentation entitled “Steps to a Nuclear Weapons-Free World.”

Helfand’s presentation centered on the history and politics of the nuclear arms race as well as the potential agricultural and ecological consequences. Instances of close encounters of nuclear war were also discussed.

“I want students to know that they, too, have a responsibility to act on the nuclear question,” said Helfand, an emergency physician and co-founder of PSR. “It is a tough message to give to students because they didn’t have a role in creating this problem.”

But Helfand said that students and other health professionals are in a unique position to spread the word as “guardians of public health.”

Helfand said the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) will eliminate nuclear weaponry and could prevent the dangers of nuclear war if passed.

It has yet to be ratified by nine countries, including the U.S., Helfand said. If the U.S ratifies the treaty, others will follow.

“I had no idea about the CTBT. It adds another element of stress to your life,” said Wilfredo Herrera, a graduate student also in the medical program. “I feel more knowledgeable about the issue. Although it’s frightening, there’s definitely a social obligation to spread the word.”

Helfand said he plans to meet with U.S. senators Tuesday to lobby him to vote in support of CTBT.

Helfand said there have been several instances where the U.S. came close to engaging in nuclear warfare – including the nuclear arms race during the Cold War and in 1995 when the USSR mistook weather balloons for U.S. missiles.

Both countries currently have around 6,000 nuclear warheads each, he said.

For Molly Burges, a graduate student in USF’s medical program, that number came as a surprise.

“I did not realize the scope of the problem,” she said. “I didn’t realize we were so close to a nuclear war in the 1990s.”

USF’s SPSR was the first student chapter in Florida and they hope to carry out some of what Helfand speaks of.

“We aim to educate physicians and health care providers of the future about the importance of being active in these efforts,” said Cara Sullivan, environment chair of SPSR.

Helfand said that the elimination of nuclear war is a task that should be treated as urgent.

“Although it is terribly unfair, in a profound sense, the younger generation is in charge of taking care of this issue once this generation is gone. If we don’t do this, then the consequences could be catastrophic,” Helfand said.

Helfand remains confident in the future, though.

“We have a president and administration who is asking for a complete ban of nuclear weapons, which is the first since the beginning of the Cold War period,” he said.

Helfand has published studies on the medical consequences of nuclear war in the New England Journal of Medicine and has lectured widely in the U.S.