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APG shouldn't needlessly poison monkeys

The monkey in the video spasms violently. He's just been injected with a massive dose of physostigmine — more than 30 times the maximum limit recommended by the Food and Drug Administration — causing vomiting, breathing difficulty, seizures and even death.

The video in question was obtained from the United States Army through the Freedom of Information Act by the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. It's a military chemical casualty training video, and it depicts what will happen in an upcoming course at Aberdeen Proving Ground here in Maryland.

As Maryland physicians, we oppose the use of monkeys in these classes. This practice is clearly cruel; the monkeys are often trapped in the wild and shipped overseas by a company known for poor treatment of animals. And that's just the beginning. They're kept in individual cages and used in these exercises several times each year. And they are used in this protocol for years.

Twenty more monkeys will arrive at Aberdeen — the only facility that conducts this type of training on monkeys — on Friday. The use of monkeys in this course is especially unethical because it is unnecessary and isn't even the best way to train military medical professionals.

Chemical weapons attacks are a real concern, and our military should be ready to overcome the effects of such an attack. But knowing how nerve agents affect a monkey in a controlled environment is not the best way to prepare.

Significant physical differences between monkeys and humans make this training method extremely problematic because it is very difficult to observe many of the signs of nerve agent poisoning in monkeys. And the first signs usually aren't observable and must be communicated verbally. Most people feel nauseated and feel tightness in their chests when they are exposed to nerve agents. There is no way for a trainee to know whether a monkey is experiencing these symptoms.

By the time a nerve agent is causing seizures and other obvious, observable effects, the nerve damage could already be severe. Learning on monkeys could make trainees miss the major signs of nerve agent poisoning in humans.

That's another reason why the military should drop this practice and switch to better methods, which are already widely available. Medical schools and hospitals across the country — including the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland — are already using medical simulators to teach students a wide range of skills and procedures. In fact, Johns Hopkins faculty published a study validating the use of simulators for the specific type of training in which the Army is using monkeys.

This use of monkeys could be replaced immediately, before these 20 monkeys are subjected to even more suffering. There is already a complete curriculum for learning how to treat patients exposed to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Researchers with the Israel Defense Forces Medical Corps and Israel's Carmel Medical Center developed a course that includes didactic teaching and simulation training.

The government should cancel this shipment of monkeys to Aberdeen Proving Ground and require military medical trainees to undergo human-centered chemical casualty training. There is no reason to subject these animals to pain and isolation for a course that isn't even clinically relevant. The Army should replace this practice immediately to ensure that our military is adequately prepared to cope with a chemical weapons attack.

Dr. Barbara Wasserman and Dr. Martin Wasserman, both Johns Hopkins School of Medicine graduates, live in Ellicott City. Martin Wasserman is a former secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. His email is mpwasserman1@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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