Later this month, a truck loaded with 20 monkeys is scheduled to rumble up the East Coast from Florida and unload its cargo at a Maryland Army base. These animals began life on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts but are slated to be repeatedly poisoned for years in the name of military training.
The truck will pass through state after state in which America's best medical schools — Duke University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Virginia, to name a few — are using high-tech human-based methods, not animals, to teach critical medical interventions.
The goal of the courses at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground is to prepare medical personnel to respond to chemical or biological agent attacks. During the training exercise, vervet monkeys are injected with the drug physostigmine at a dose of 30 to 60 times the maximum FDA-recommended limit.
A crowd of trainees will then observe the resulting symptoms — violent seizures, excessive sweating and salivation, breathing difficulty, vomiting and diarrhea. At the end of each course, the monkey will be put back into solitary caging, where he will remain for as few as nine weeks before the whole painful process is repeated.
I recently filed a petition with the Army on behalf of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — a national nonprofit organization of physicians, scientists and laypersons — to stop this cruel and archaic use of monkeys. In this petition, we demonstrated that the monkeys involved are suffering immensely in courses that could easily be taught using human-based methods, such as high-fidelity medical simulation.
While the Pentagon has made a strong commitment to the development of advanced medical simulators, they have been slow to implement this new technology. It is time for Congress to step in and insist that Army medical leaders end the use of monkeys in these courses.
This should be a no-brainer for the Army. As a physician, I know you need to communicate with your patients to diagnose nerve-agent exposure early — before the most severe symptoms arise. You can't do that with a monkey. First responders also need to detect pupil dilation, which may indicate nerve-agent poisoning, but that's not possible in the Army's courses because vervet monkeys lack a white sclera, the outer coat covering much of the eyeball.
Monkeys suffer during the procedure and afterward in their cages. According to veterinary records obtained by PCRM through the Freedom of Information Act, monkeys have been injected on multiple occasions with the drug after anesthesia has worn off and have had prolonged complicated recoveries after the training sessions. Between courses, monkeys have been found suffering from severe weight loss, serious dental problems, missing toes, unexplained vomiting and bleeding.
It would be difficult for the Army to justify this suffering under any circumstances, but what is even more perplexing is that this training method continues despite the availability of educationally superior, human-centered methods. Advanced medical simulators are vastly more effective at training medical personnel to respond to nerve-agent attacks.
These high-fidelity manikins, which have been validated and used at Harvard University and Johns Hopkins, as well as by the Israel Defense Forces, are modeled directly on the human body. These "patients" talk, bleed and vomit, and their pupils dilate. Trainees can help them breathe and administer antidotes, allowing a truly interactive, hands-on experience.
Compare that to the monkey lab, in which seven to 10 trainees crowd around a single animal and observe as the attending veterinarian performs the majority of the procedures.
There is no justification for continuing this cruel and unusual use of monkeys — animals who we know experience pain, suffering, familial bonds and friendship. Congress must push the Army to move toward superior methods to end this inhumane practice and ensure that troops receive the best training available.
Dr. John Pippin is the director of academic affairs with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.