With the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded raging across West Africa and as two Americans who were infected in Liberia have entered the U.S. for treatment, the question has been raised: will Ebola happen in the U.S?
Actually, an Ebola outbreak has happened in the U.S. before — not just once, but at least three times.
“Animal protection is now mainstream.”
This was announced at the 5th annual Classy Awards held in San Diego this weekend. The Classy Awards Ceremony honors outstanding nonprofit programs in eight major social sectors, including animal protection, education advancement, poverty and hunger relief, environmental protection, human rights and social justice, and others. The two-day collaborative brought together hundreds of people from around the world — some from for-profit organizations, many from non-profit. What they all have in common is that the work they do is for the social good.
As a Leadership Council Member, I was proud to recognize amazing organizations trying their hardest to alleviate the suffering of animals. I was even more proud to stand there with other social organizations trying to improve the world for everyone-human and non-human.
I once attended a neuroscience conference featuring a talk about spinal cord injury. The presenter showed a brief video clip that haunts me still to this day.
The presenter showed a clip of his experiment in which he had crushed a cat’s spinal cord and was recording the cat’s movement on a treadmill. He had forcibly implanted electrodes into the cat’s brain and she was struggling to keep upright, dragging her paralyzed legs on the treadmill. She repeatedly fell off the machine.
At one point, the experimenter lifted her up to reposition her on the treadmill and the cat did something that was utterly unexpected. She rubbed her head against the experimenter’s hand.
Throughout this series on animal experiments, I have tried to draw attention to the general ineffectiveness of animal experiments and how they impede our chances of finding cures.
I have focused on the human side of the equation. But we should also take a brief look at the animal side:
Just who are these animals abused in experimentation?
An international group of scientists recently ended a year-long moratorium on controversial research on potentially deadly strains of the H5N1 avian flu virus. The purpose of the research was to engineer strains of H5N1 in order to understand how it might gain the ability to spread easily among people.
Regardless of whether or not this research continues, you can bet one thing: Our risk for a deadly form of the “bird flu” virus and other pathogens remain high as long as we don’t improve our treatment of animals.
Recently, PBS’s Frontline aired a disturbing documentary chronicling the National Football League’s history of downplaying and distorting the evidence that football-related head injuries cause long-term brain damage. The film included footage from a 2009 Congressional hearing in which lawmakers compared the NFL’s approach to the problem to Big Tobacco’s decades of sham science and lies about the link between smoking and disease. The analogy is spot on.
The NFL borrowed a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook by choosing to dump millions of dollars into experiments on animals that won’t ever help humans, but will allow dangerous activity to continue while giving the public the illusion that they’re being protected.
Do we need to make a choice to either protect animals or humans? This is certainly what those who profit from hurting animals would like everyone to believe. Advocates of animal experimentation especially employ the fallacy of a false dilemma: that we must choose to care about human suffering or about animal suffering, and that we cannot do both. This erroneous thinking leads us to believe that we must either experiment on a mouse (or a dog or monkey …) or we must experiment on a human child, implying that we are forced to make a choice—it’s the animals or us.
However, not only is this notion that we must either protect animals or humans not true, in fact, the opposite is true. The human plight is inextricably tied with that of other animals.
Your child, my father, and all of our loved ones who may be suffering from illnesses are not rats or dogs or monkeys. So why do animal experimenters keep treating them as though they are?
Suppose you are an experimenter and are determining if methylprednisolone, a steroid, will help humans with spinal cord injury. After crushing the spinal cords of many different animals, you test the drug on them. My colleagues and I looked at the published studies (62 in total) and here are the results broken down by species :
- In Cats: the drug was mostly effective
- Dogs: mostly effective
- Rats: mostly ineffective
- Mice: always ineffective
- Monkeys: effective (1 experiment)
- Sheep: ineffective (1 experiment)
- Rabbits: results were split down the middle
Based on these results, can you determine if methylprednisolone will help humans with spinal cord injury?
My father suffers from diabetic peripheral neuropathy. His diabetes led to nerve damage that causes him severe, constant pain. I want the best medical treatments possible for him and, as a neurologist, I am always on the lookout for good, new drugs, but none of them have effectively slowed down his diabetes and nerve damage. As long as experimenters continue to try to recreate diabetes in animals, instead of studying human diabetes, I have little hope that my father’s pain will end.
Although numerous drugs are available, diabetes remains among the top killers in the U.S. and worldwide. The newest drugs are generally no more effective than the older drugs or are much more harmful. Just recently, two new diabetic drugs, Onglyza and aleglitazar, failed clinical trials after testing in animals.
At first glance, it might seem that if we can recreate diabetes in dogs or mice, we would better understand diabetes. But here’s the problem: we end up better understanding animal diabetes– in dogs and mice– but not necessarily human diabetes.
Imagine you are a monkey in a laboratory and a person dressed in a white coat walks into the room with a catching net. How do you think you would react? You would probably not be surprised to learn that monkeys in this situation immediately show significant distress.
What may surprise you, however, is that the distress that animals in laboratories experience is one of the main reasons why animal experimentation doesn’t work.
Recently, former NIH Director, Elias Zerhouni (director from 2002-2008), returned to address NIH and made a startling comment:
“We have moved away from studying human disease in humans,” he lamented. “We all drank the Kool-Aid on that one, me included.” With the ability to knock in or knock out any gene in a mouse — which “can’t sue us,” Zerhouni quipped — researchers have over-relied on animal data. “The problem is that it hasn’t worked, and it’s time we stopped dancing around the problem…We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.”
“Evidence-based medicine” is a term used throughout medical practice. Basically, we rely on evidence to support virtually every practice in medicine and medical research — except one. Despite the fact that millions of animals are used in experiments each year, we have rarely actually scrutinized the data on animal experiments to determine how relevant they are for human diseases and for improving our lives.
Fortunately that’s changing. More scientists are now taking a hard look at this question. What the evidence is showing is that we can get much better answers about human health and diseases and develop more effective therapies if we use human-based tests instead of animal experiments.