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WHO recommends stockpiling radiation drugs in case of ‘nuclear emergency’

The explosion and mushroom cloud resulting from the Trinity nuclear explosion. (U.S. Department of Energy/Released)
January 27, 2023

The World Health Organization (WHO) updated its list of recommended drugs to stockpile for nuclear emergencies on Friday for the first time since 2007.

The list was included in a new report updating its 16-year-old guidance for how nations should medically prepare for radiological and nuclear emergencies. In a statement, the WHO said many countries still lack “essential elements” of radiation emergency preparedness.

The updated guidance comes as the world is at greater risk of nuclear escalation than any time since the Cold War. Russian President Vladimir Putin has hinted at a willingness to drop nuclear bombs as his Ukraine invasion drags on, causing President Joe Biden to suggest last fall that we face “the prospect of Armageddon.”

According to the WHO’s list, a typical radiation emergency stockpile should include:

  • Stable iodine, to reduce thyroid exposure to radioactive iodine
  • Chelating agents to remove radionuclides from the body
  • Cytokines to reduce bone marrow damage
  • Medicines to treat vomiting, diarrhea and infections

“This updated critical medicines list will be a vital preparedness and readiness tool for our partners to identify, procure, stockpile and deliver effective countermeasures in a timely fashion to those at risk or exposed in these events,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program.

The report considers crisis scenarios ranging from nuclear power plant emergencies, accidents while transporting radioactive materials, as well as “intentional uses of radioactive materials with malicious intent,” according to the statement.

“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,” said Dr. Maria Neira, WHO’s acting assistant director-general of the Healthier Populations division. 

“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.”