WHO issues new advice on stockpiling radiation sickness medicines in event of nuclear attack

Digital illustration of a nuclear explosion over a city - Shutterstock
Digital illustration of a nuclear explosion over a city - Shutterstock

The World Health Organization has given new advice on stockpiling medicines to treat radiation sickness, amid worries the Ukraine war could result in a nuclear emergency.

The United Nations health body updated its 15-year-old list of medicines health services should have at hand in case of “radiological and nuclear emergencies”.

Sources confirmed the new advice had been prompted by the 11-month-long war, which has triggered a number of nuclear threats.

Fighting or artillery barrages around the country's nuclear power plants have raised the prospect of  battle damage that would trigger a leak of radiation.

Vladimir Putin in October also claimed Ukraine was preparing to detonate a low-yield radioactive “dirty bomb” on its own territory. His claims led Kyiv and other western observers to speculate the Russian leader may have been preparing a “false flag” attack of his own.

In extreme scenarios, military analysts worry whether Russia could escalate into the use of tactical nuclear weapons as it continues to face battlefield losses.

The new guidelines consider scenarios including “radiological or nuclear emergencies at nuclear power plants” and “intentional uses of radioactive materials with malicious intent”.

‘Living in a time of unprecedented danger’

Dr Maria Neira, the WHO's acting assistant director-general, said: “In radiation emergencies, people may be exposed to radiation at doses ranging from negligible to life-threatening.

“Governments need to make treatments available for those in need – fast,” she added. “It is essential that governments are prepared to protect the health of populations and respond immediately to emergencies. This includes having ready supplies of lifesaving medicines that will reduce risks and treat injuries from radiation.”

Stockpiles should include supplies such as iodine tablets to protect the thyroid and cytokines used to reduce damage to bone marrow in cases of acute radiation poisoning.

Other medicines are used to treat vomiting, diarrhoea and infections.

The new guidelines also look at future treatments and countermeasures that “give insight to the future medical countermeasures that could be used for managing patients overexposed to radiation”.

Earlier this week, a Doomsday Clock used by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to illustrate global existential threats was moved closer to midnight, largely because of threats from the Ukraine war.

The clock was established in 1947 at the dawn of the nuclear weapons age.

Rachel Bronson, the president and CEO of the Bulletin, said the clock had been moved forward from 100 seconds to midnight to 90 seconds “largely, though not exclusively, because of the mounting dangers in the war in Ukraine”.

“We are living in a time of unprecedented danger, and the Doomsday Clock time reflects that reality,” Ms Bronson said.

“Ninety seconds to midnight is the closest the clock has ever been set to midnight, and it’s a decision our experts do not take lightly.”

Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security