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AIDS-Like Ailment Could Hit H-Bomb Survivors, Scientists Say

September 21, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Survivors of a nuclear war would not only face darkness, cold, famine and radioactive fallout but also could develop a condition similar to AIDS, according to a scientific study.

Dr. David S. Greer, dean of medicine at Brown University, said Saturday environmental stresses on nuclear war survivors could attack the body’s immune response, much like acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

A study by Greer and colleague Lawrence S. Rifkin says such stresses can impair functioning of white blood cells, called T-cells, key components of the body’s defense against bacterial, viral and fungal diseases.

The resulting immune system depression could leave survivors susceptible to potentially deadly infections, as does AIDS, a fatal condition believed caused by a virus that also cripples T-cell functions.

″Epidemics of diseases in which T-cells mediate the immune response are likely in the months and years following nuclear attack,″ the scientists told a meeting on medical implications of nuclear war.

Such diseases could include tuberculosis, leprosy, pneumonia, Legionnaire’s disease and rare forms of cancer, they said.

Scientists believe millions would be exposed to sub-lethal doses of radiation in a nuclear war.

Fires would produce enough smoke and soot to block sunlight and cool the Earth in a ″nuclear winter,″ halting crop production and spreading famine.

Greer told the symposium, sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, that many studies show stresses affect T-cell function.

These stresses, which would be common after a nuclear exchange, include increased radiation exposure, physical trauma, burns and malnutrition as well as depression and grief, he said.

T-cell abnormalities also are believed important in determining the body’s susceptibility to cancer, Greer said. An upturn in radiation-induced cancers, which scientists have long seen as a result of nuclear war, could be partly attributed to T-cell problems, he said.

Greer told a news briefing he was unaware of any severe immune system affects among survivors of the World War II atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

″But AIDS-like reactions probably would not have been recognized at the time,″ he said.

Meanwhile, Herbert L. Abrams of the Stanford University Center for International Security and Arms Control told the meeting a nuclear blast over only one major U.S. city would outstrip all of the nation’s medical resources.

A one-megaton explosion, equal to a million tons of TNT, over Detroit would kill 470,000 of the city’s 4.3 million people and injure 630,000 others, he said.

″Among the injured survivors, blast and burn effects would dominate,″ he said, ″with radiation effects far less prominent.″

Survivors would require 42,000 beds in burn treatment centers, he said. He said 1,333 such beds exist in the entire country. Also needed would be 134,000 intensive care beds, more than twice the nationwide capacity, he added.

All of the nation’s doctors, nurses and medical technicians would be adequate to serve Detroit, he said, but only if they could be sent immediately.

Abrams also analyzed medical needs in the event of what defense experts envison as a general attack - detonation of 6,000 megatons of nuclear explosives over the United States.

Treating the estimated 32 million injured survivors would require 70 times more hospital beds, 12 times more doctors and 48 times more nurses than would be available throughout the nation, he said.