UPDATE: Victory for Monkeys as Army Agrees to End Live Chemical Casualty Exercise
After years of pressure from PCRM, on Oct. 13, 2011, the Army announced that it would phase out the use of monkeys for its chemical casualty management courses. The Army completed this transition in November 2011. Now, the Army makes further use of high-fidelity simulators and moulage—superior nonanimal alternatives that meet the needs of U.S. troops far better than the irrelevant monkey laboratory.
A monkey shakes violently from his jaws all the way to his hind legs. A large black tattoo reading “I035” stretches along the shaven left side of his twitching torso. He salivates profusely, and a puddle forms around his face.
This scene is from a military training video PCRM obtained from the U.S. Army through the Freedom of Information Act. The exercise—which takes place at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland—is supposed to illustrate injuries from chemical weapons for military medical officers. But a growing number of physicians and military medical personnel are speaking out against this practice, and last month Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., introduced a bill that would require the military to replace the use of monkeys with modern nonanimal methods.
In this U.S. Army chemical casualty management course, live vervet monkeys are given a toxic dose of the drug physostigmine to simulate the effects of exposure to a nerve agent. Trainees then observe the drug’s effects, which include respiratory distress, profuse sweating and salivation, and seizures. After all students have observed and recorded the signs, the monkey is injected with a drug meant to reverse the effects of the nerve agent.
Monkey I035 and the nearly 50 other monkeys involved in this training are subjected to this procedure up to six times in a year. They are used for this protocol indefinitely. Repeated exposure to physostigmine is known to cause serious complications or death.
A Clear Violation
The use of vervet monkeys in these courses constitutes a violation of the military’s joint regulation The Care and Use of Laboratory Animals in DOD Programs. This regulation prohibits the use of nonhuman primates for “inflicting wounds with any type of weapon(s) to conduct training in surgical or other medical treatment procedures.”
The regulation also says nonanimal methods should be considered and used if they produce equivalent results “to attain the research, education, training and testing objectives.” Validated nonanimal methods, including medical simulators, are available.
The Scientific Problem
The experiments are clearly cruel. Between experiments, the animals are held in individual cages at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Despite claims by the training film’s narrator that vervet monkeys have “similar anatomy to humans,” significant physical differences make the use of these animals problematic.
Monkeys do not display the same signs of nerve agent poisoning as humans. When a human is having a cholinergic crisis, perspiration is usually visible. The skin on vervet monkeys’ faces and hands, however, is significantly different from humans’. In the training video, students must wipe the monkey’s hands and feet to determine whether the animal is sweating.
“The first symptoms victims of nerve agent exposure report are usually nausea and tightness of the chest,” says PCRM’s director of research policy Hope Ferdowsian, M.D., M.P.H. “A monkey cannot tell you that. Learning on monkeys could cause trainees to miss hallmarks of nerve agent poisoning in humans.”
A Better Way
Nonanimal training methods could immediately replace the use of vervet monkeys in the U.S. Army’s chemical casualty management courses.
Researchers with the Israel Defense Forces Medical Corps and Israel’s Carmel Medical Center developed a nonanimal training curriculum for treating patients exposed to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The course includes didactic teaching and simulation training.
Online: Watch this video at BetterMilitaryMedicine.org
Teaching without Animals
John Pawlowski, M.D., Ph.D., director of anesthesia at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, has organized numerous scenarios that simulate mass-casualty incidents and nerve gas attacks. Dr. Pawlowski wrote a letter to the Department of Defense offering to organize a simulated mass-casualty scenario to allow military officials to experience the realism and benefits of this training model. Medical centers across the United States use models similar to Dr. Pawlowski’s to prepare personnel for mass-casualty incidents in the case of a terrorist attack.
“Unlike monkeys, human-patient simulators can mimic human responses to biological and nerve agents—including physostigmine,” says Dr. Pawlowski. “Simulation technology, along with sophisticated moulage, creates realistic, hands-on training scenarios that prepare medical personnel for what they could actually encounter while on duty. There is nothing like the sight of one of your colleagues down or seizing to reinforce the lesson.”
New Bill Would Replace Monkeys with Modern Methods
The chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has introduced a bill that would require the military to phase in human-based simulators and other nonanimal methods for chemical casualty training. The bill would also phase out the use of pigs and goats in combat trauma training courses. Rep. Filner’s bill, H.R. 4269, would help ensure that troops receive effective, human-based training before deployment.
Join PCRM during the week of Jan. 11 to 15, 2010, to ask Congress to support this crucial legislation. Members of Congress are in recess that week and will be in their home districts. Please make plans to visit your U.S. representative’s local office to urge her/him to support H.R. 4269, the BEST Practices Act. If you cannot visit your congressperson’s office that week, please visit another time in January. Get talking points and materials for your meeting at BetterMilitaryMedicine.org.
You can also call or e-mail your representative to voice your support of this bill. Call the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121, or send an automatic e-mail at BetterMilitaryMedicine.org.
If you have questions, please contact Noah Gittell at ngittell@PCRM.org or 202-686-2210, ext. 334.