Seventy years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Red Cross hospitals are still treating thousands of survivors and identifying new links between radiation exposure and fatal illnesses.
Initially, many medical experts expected the effect of radiation to diminish within 10 to 20 years. Contrary to this assumption, it is now clear that these atomic bombs have caused lifelong illnesses. New cases of cancer and leukaemia rates are still emerging, and the number of atomic bomb survivors developing heart disease is rising.
Dr Masao Tomonaga, himself an atomic bomb survivor, is a radiation exposure expert and elaborates on his most recent discovery: “Until now, it was believed that there was no link between the radiation exposure and blood vessel-related illnesses. However, as the atomic survivors get older, many of them have suffered from heart attacks and angina. Our study shows a clear link between the amount of radiation exposure and illnesses related to blood vessels.”
Nearly 200,000 survivors are still alive. Sumiteru Taniguchi was 16 years old when the bomb hit Nagasaki on Aug 9, 1945. He was on his bicycle delivering mail.
“I was thrown to the ground and my back burnt instantaneously,” recalls Taniguchi. “I felt the ground shaking and thought I was going to die. As things calmed down, I realised the skin on my left arm, from the shoulder to the tip of my fingers, was trailing down like a rag. I felt no pain. I put my hand to my back and found my shirt was gone and something black and slimy was all over my hand. My bicycle was completely twisted like candy.”
Despite his wounds, Taniguchi remembers wandering around looking for shelter: “I saw many people burned and it was hard to recognise if it was a man or woman. I wanted to help them but it seemed like I’d lost all of my energy and strength.”
Taniguchi spent three years and seven months in hospital, teetering on the edge of death. All his life, he’s been in pain and afraid his two children would suffer from inheritable radiation effects.
On top of the physical damage, Dr Tomonaga is well aware of the psychological impact on survivors: “Most patients were children when the atomic bomb hit. For these people, they have worried about late effects from the radiation since they were 10 years old. They have never had a moment of relief from the fear of being diagnosed with leukaemia or cancer. Nobody could tell them ‘your suffering is over’.”
Many of today’s nuclear bombs are 10 times more powerful than the ones dropped 70 years ago, and the destruction and human suffering they could cause is unimaginable.
The atomic bombings’ commemoration comes just months after the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons failed to agree a move forward towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. Negotiations to prohibit the use of and eliminate nuclear weapons are urgently needed. Humanity can and must learn from its experience.
Facts & figures
> Last year alone, the Japanese Red Cross Hiroshima and Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Survivors Hospitals treated 4,657 and 6,030 survivors respectively.
> Nearly two-thirds (63%) of atomic bomb survivor deaths in the hospital through March 2014 were attributed to cancers of which the primary types were lung cancer (20% ), stomach cancer (18%), liver cancer (14%), leukemia (8%), intestinal cancer (7%) and malignant lymphoma (6%). Over this period, more than half of all deaths at the Nagasaki Red Cross hospital (56%) were due to cancer.
> The Japanese Red Cross Society has run hospitals for atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima since 1956 and in Nagasaki since 1969. The hospitals have together handled more than 2.5 million outpatient visits by atomic bomb survivors and more than 2.6 million admissions of survivors as inpatients. – INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE FOR THE RED CROSS