Live animals are no longer used during the undergraduate medical curriculum at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, according to an email sent by Ret. Col. John E. McManigle, acting dean of the medical school, on Tuesday.
The federal government runs the university to train graduates for service at home and abroad in the medical corps. For years, students at the school used live pigs to practice surgery and live ferrets to practice intubation.
“We are shocked and we didn’t think they would change. It’s pretty exciting,” said Jeanne Stuart McVey, a spokeswoman for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit dedicated to ending research on animals and unethical human testing.
McManigle could not be reached for comment Thursday.
In 2008, military doctors and the committee complained to the Department of Defense about the school’s use of live ferrets to teach students how to insert tubes into infants.
The school stopped the practice later that year, but the use of live animals in surgery continued.
In the surgery lab, students performed several procedures on pigs, involving cutting open the abdomen, chest and internal organs as well as inserting drainage tubes into the chest, both while the chest was closed and after opening the chest. After the procedures, the pigs were killed, according to documents obtained by the committee via a Freedom of Information Act this spring.
The committee learned the programs had been discontinued when it received the documents, although the exact date cannot be established, McVey said. The program was supposed to run until the end of the year.
Dr. Marion Balsam, a pediatrician and a retired Navy rear admiral, was one of the doctors instrumental in halting the intubation of live ferrets for pediatrics training in 2008.
Ferrets have since been replaced with life-like human patient simulators, which most medical schools now use, Balsam said. Only four accredited medical schools in the country still use live animals.
“I’m very pleased that they have seen the light. My feeling is that there is equally good, if not superior, simulation technology available,” Balsam said. “I am against using live animals for medical education in general.”
The doctor, who lives in Bethesda, said technology and ethics compel schools to find alternatives to live animal testing.
“There’s absolutely no excuse,” Balsam said.