Dr Lesley Morrison (retired GP) and Dr Duncan Macintyre (retired consultant physician)

AT the weekend we joined a group of health professionals in London to add our voice to the opposition to Defence and Security Equipment International ([DSEI)], one of the world’s largest showcases of military equipment hosted bi-annually by Britain.

Last month a major American medical journal called for a review of firearms regulation in the US. What is the connection between these actions? No-one pretends that conflict, whether inter-personal, within societies, or between nations is solely related to the possession of weapons. However, widespread availability of lethal munitions markedly exacerbates the suffering caused by conflict. There are around 40,000 gun- related deaths in the US each year. Worldwide there are twice as many direct and indirect deaths from conflict as from malaria and conflict linked to the widespread availability of firearms is seen as an on-going public health issue.

DSEI promotes and extols everything related to increasing destructive capability, from individual firearms and body armour, through to armoured vehicles, helicopters, missiles and sophisticated weapons systems. It attracts private and state customers from around the world. Official invitations this year include a military delegation from Saudi Arabia, which is the UK’s largest customer of military equipment. This equipment, including Paveway bombs from Raytheon in Glenrothes, has seen use over recent years in Yemen where conflict has led to the deaths of thousands of children and worrying outbreaks of cholera with the collapse of social and health infrastructure. This is a classic and horrific example of how problematic localised conflicts have been hugely magnified by the involvement of heavily armed internal and external actors.

In Libya also, the results of internal conflict are exacerbated by a proliferation of weapons, large quantities of small and light weapons mainly supplied to opposition groups at the time of Ghaddafi’s downfall. Disruption of what had once been a public health success story has led, for example, to a resurgence of vaccine-preventable disease.

In many other countries in north Africa, Asia and the Middle East, military spending exceeds health budgets.Thus, in Pakistan, for instance, defence expenditure is 18% of the country’s total budget.

The countries which primarily profit from this situation are of course those which sell most weapons. Five of the six largest arms exporters are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the five original nuclear weapons states. The British Government appears to be proud of its role in this trade, and it was recently reported that the UK is once again the world’s second largest exporter of arms and weapons.

Our role as doctors with a broad public health perspective is to call for a halt to this international arms trade. and the widespread accumulation of military hardware, both legal and illegal. There is a useful parallel with medical action against the tobacco industry. It was only when the medical establishment drew to public attention the devastating health effects of smoking that the power of the tobacco lobby began to be curtailed. We believe that, in the same way, health professionals have a responsibility to speak out against the arms industry.

Coordinated by public health organisation Medact, 276 health professionals wrote to the UK Secretary of State for International Trade this month, demanding that the UK Government commits to ending its support of the arms industry and arms fairs, and stating clearly that health and well-being should always take priority over arms trade profit.