When War and Medicine Combine: A Physician Reflects

July 31, 2014
Margaret Wacker, MD

The shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines jet over Ukraine may have an effect on the health of the world's citizens for years to come.

War and medicine have always been linked, beginning with healthcare providers who could offer little more than solace to the injured and continuing to the modern day military hospital where physicians have access to specialty ORs.

As a surgeon, perhaps I see more of the linkage, since surgery is so necessary to care for the injured and many surgical inventions come about due to necessity in time of war: Army/Navy retractors, Russian forceps, Jackson-Pratt drains, to name just a few.

Similarly, there have been medical advances, such as BAL, British anti-Lewisite, a heavy metal chelating agent, developed in reaction to the threat of arsenic-based chemical warfare agents during World War II. That war also showed many physicians the benefits of penicillin, since it was used on a large scale for the first time.

But as much as war has helped with the development of medicine, especially surgery, medicine has struggled to cope with the devastation of war. And physicians have at times been involved in development of "better ways to kill." Now, we have weapons that cause injuries that the best medical care cannot treat.

I must make a disclosure: I have never been in a war. The closest I have come was working in inner-city hospitals while drug cartels were fighting for "turf." But, I could return home to the safety of a middle-class community where shootings were rare.

Even so, I saw the toll such violence took on young lives. This has caused me to become involved with Physicians for Social Responsibility and EMERGENCY to try to help prevent war and care for the civilian victims of war.

The shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines jet in Ukraine shows of another way war has affected medicine. It's been reported that about 100 AIDS researchers were on board.

The researchers likely thought that they were heading to a convention in a peaceful part of the world, Australia. The researchers likely had taken many flights before, and so were not worried about the risks of flying.

At 30,000 feet, they didn't think about what they were flying over. Just as many pilots in bombers have not seen the destruction they wreak below.

It may have been a case of mistaken identity. Even so, the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines jet over Ukraine may have an effect on the health of the world's citizens for years to come.

This war has not produced new devices, invented out of necessity. It has, instead, destroyed some of the minds that might have thought up new treatments for AIDS.

As physicians, we must remain aware of the linkages between war and medicine. As ethical people, we must be sure that in the interaction, we do what we can to help all people. We cannot simply see it as not affecting us.