ST. LOUIS (AP) – Washington University’s continued use of sedated cats and ferrets to train medical students how to insert breathing tubes down babies’ throats is cruel, ineffective and unnecessary, according to a medical ethics group pressuring the school to abandon the practice.
Of nearly 200 U.S. pediatric residency programs surveyed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, only Washington University’s and two affiliated with the military still use the training technique and those other two are considering abandoning it, according to the physicians committee.
“Washington University has a well-respected pediatrics program,” said Dr. John Pippin, a Dallas cardiologist and former Harvard Medical School professor who is the committee’s director of academic affairs. “Why would they want to be exposed as kind of the Neanderthal of the profession? It’s embarrassing.”
The committee is organizing a doctor-led protest outside the medical school Thursday morning, replete with humans in cat costumes and picketing physicians wearing white lab coats. The group has taken out several full-page ads in the Washington University student newspaper denouncing the research, including one featuring “True Blood” actress Kristin Bauer, who graduated from the school. Former television game show host Bob Barker, an animal rights activist who lived in Missouri as a child, offered $75,000 to buy two high-tech simulators if the university changes its protocol. The university declined the offer, noting that it has a bevy of simulators but still wants it students to practice on live animals.
Other protests have been more personal. A local animal-rights group, the St. Louis Alliance for Medical Progress, gathered outside a university researcher’s suburban home in July, chanting with bullhorns as curious neighbors watched. Alliance members say the lab animals endure pain and suffering and suffer injuries ranging from cracked teeth to punctured lungs.
Dr. F. Sessions Cole, an assistant vice chancellor for children’s health and the chief medical officer at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, which is affiliated with the school, defended the teaching regimen as a necessary tool.
He noted that the nine male cats in the university lab are not kept in cages and only intubated several times annually over three years before being placed for adoption. Pediatric researchers have adopted some of those cats, and none of the animals have been injured since the lab opened 25 years ago, he said.
Cole cited research indicating that pediatric doctors in training only succeed in 20 to 35 percent of their initial attempts to intubate infants, which he said was too low of a success rate to justify relying only on simulators.
“The real-life situation involves anatomy that moves,” Cole said. “I am convinced, and I know (our) institutions are, that the best training for physicians involves a combination of simulators and animals. We feel we have an obligation that every one of our trainees is confident and competent to do this procedure.”
Pippin, though, said there’s no evidence that training pediatric students on live animals this way better prepares them to do so on human patients. On the contrary, he contends that several studies have shown that students trained solely on simulators show greater proficiency in intubation than others. He said his group has sent several letters to school officials citing the research, but that it never got a response.
The university said in May that it would no longer use live cats in the pediatric life supporting training course for medical professionals, largely at the behest of the American Heart Association, which sponsors the course and instead endorses using mannequins for the neonatal simulations. Cole said that decision was not the school bowing to outside pressure, but was made to provide “consistency” with American Heart Association classes offered elsewhere.
Cole added that the lab has consistently met the standards of the federal Animal Welfare Act, including after a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection following an undercover video of the lab released online by the activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
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