Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Petition asks Army to halt using live animals in training

Medical procedures can be taught with simulators, group says

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Pentagon officials are considering a petition asking them to halt the use of live animals for teaching medical procedures at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, as well as at a medical center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

The petition from the Washington-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, filed last week, has been sent to Army Secretary Preston M. Geren III, Lt. Col. David Patterson said Thursday.

His staff is reviewing it and should issue a response in about 14 days, Patterson said.

The physicians group and seven petitioners, including retired armed forces medical personnel and two physicians who teach at the military medical school in Bethesda, contend that a Defense Department directive and Army regulation require that alternative methods be considered and used.

Further, the group says the practice violates the Animal Welfare Act because it is not ‘‘unavoidable for the conduct of scientifically valuable research.”

The group has been urging medical schools across the country — including Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore — to stop using animals to teach surgery and medical techniques, such as inserting breathing or feeding tubes in infants.

John J. Pippin, a Dallas cardiologist and adviser to the group, said animals are used gratuitously because simulators and other alternatives can be used.

‘‘What we are running into are determined individuals who have dug in their heels and don’t want to change,” Pippin said.

Larry W. Laughlin, the Bethesda medical school’s dean, has been ‘‘dismissive,” Pippin said.

The school’s leaders decided that using live animals is an ‘‘important and worthwhile portion of the curriculum,” spokeswoman Carol Scheman told The Gazette in December.

As for Johns Hopkins, where the group staged protests in March, Pippin said key resistance comes from surgery department chairwoman Julie A. Freischlag.

Freischlag could not be reached for comment, but according to a (Baltimore) Sun story in March, she said simulators cannot replace the feel and familiarity with tissue that physicians and surgeons need.

Yet the movement away from using live animals is gaining ground.

Within the last few weeks, medical schools at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., stopped using animals. Of 126 medical schools in the United States, only eight use live animals for training purposes.

Case Western Reserve’s move to alternatives leaves Hopkins as the only medical school ranked among the top 25 in the nation and the only one in Maryland using live animals.

The University of Maryland School of Medicine uses computer and mechanical simulation.