By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
The U.S. military's medical school in Bethesda is drawing criticism from a coalition of physicians and military officers for using live animals in some medical procedures, such as surgeries, a practice many medical schools have long abandoned.
Students and faculty at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences insert breathing tubes in live ferrets to practice intubation of human infants, and they perform surgeries on live pigs, according to a petition for enforcement to be filed today with the Department of Defense.
The petition alleges that the military's use of animals in medical classes "inherently and unavoidably causes pain, distress, and suffering to those animals."
The petition, brought by the Washington-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, asks the university to instead use alternatives, including high-tech human simulators used by many other U.S. medical schools.
John J. Pippin, a cardiologist in Dallas and the physicians committee's senior medical and research adviser, called the military's use of live animals "unquestionably unethical."
"For every instance where they're using live animals, there are methods that can be used instead that would provide either equivalent or superior educational value," Pippin said. "To abuse and take the life of an animal, especially for a purpose that is served better by not doing so, is gratuitous and unethical."
Officials at the university, located on Jones Bridge Road near the National Naval Medical Center, have not seen the petition but have had ongoing correspondence with the physicians committee, spokeswoman Carol Scheman said yesterday. A university panel is reviewing its use of animals in the medical curriculum, she said.
"In the past, we have concluded that the use of animals in our education program is an important if not essential part of the curriculum," Scheman said.
In using animals, the university is acting within its legal rights, said Tony Mazzaschi, senior director of scientific affairs at the independent Association of American Medical Colleges. The federal Animal Welfare Act requires that schools assess alternatives to live animals but does not prohibit them from using animals.
"That's a subtle nuance that's critically important," he said.
Because the university has a unique military focus, it could make a special case for using animals in its courses, Mazzaschi said.
"Obviously they are a public institution and need to be held accountable to the public's concern, but if anyone can make the case for using animals in medical education, I think the Uniformed Services can, given their very special mission," he said.
The physicians committee states that only eight of the nation's 154 accredited medical schools report using live animals, including Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Mazzaschi said the use of live animals in medical education has declined rapidly as simulated human models have been developed.
Larry W. Laughlin, the university's dean of medicine, was quoted in a recent report saying he is focused on "what's best for our students," even if most other medical schools no longer use live animals.
"Thousands of times more pigs are slaughtered and have worse lives and suffer worse demises in Iowa every day than we do in a year," Laughlin said in the May 20 edition of Nature magazine. "Therefore it is hard for me to rationalize the intense concern."
Pediatrician Marion Balsam taught at the Uniformed Services University for two decades before retiring from the Navy in 2000 as a rear admiral. Now a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, Balsam is a co-signer on the committee's petition and voiced outrage at the university's practices.
"I think it's abominable," she said. "I think it's unconscionable and unnecessary."
Balsam added that a procedure involving a live animal might be "an interesting experience for a medical student to have. But it's clear that animals experience suffering."