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August 3, 1984

The Final Epidemic: Prescriptions for Prevention

JAMA. 1984;252(5):635-638. doi:10.1001/jama.1984.03350050023020

IN FEBRUARY 1980, the US Physicians for Social Responsibility held its first public meeting on the medical consequences of nuclear war. That meeting emphasized the effects on health of a nuclear exchange and the inability of the medical community to respond in any meaningful way. An analogy was drawn to an epidemic orders of magnitude worse than any ever experienced or even imagined. Since treatment for such a catastrophe is inconceivable, speakers on that occasion and subsequently have emphasized that all efforts must be directed at prevention.

At the time of that meeting, some political and military figures were talking about surviving—even winning—a nuclear war. Therefore, we physicians considered it our responsibility to describe in stark terms the medical realities, lest strategic planning be based on mistaken assumptions of medical capabilities. We were aware, of course, that prevention of any disease requires an effective prescription. We also recognized that what