Guest Editorial: Biting the Hand That Cures You
How the "Animal Rights" Movement Threatens Medical Progress
by Dr. Joseph E. Murray
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
The line of cars in front of Children's Hospital in Boston stretched for four blocks. Anxious parents clamored for medical attention for their children. Harried doctors had to examine their young patients in the cars -- the vast wards of Children's Hospital were already filled to capacity.
That scene was repeated at hospitals around the country during the polio epidemics of the 1950s.
Polio. Poliomyelitis. Infantile paralysis. The very words evoked terror in the hearts of parents. The slightest fever or soreness in a child could be the first sign of the horrible disease. Summers meant closed swimming pools and empty beaches. Children were kept indoors, away from their playmates.
The fear of polio gripped our nation.
The 1952 epidemic alone struck down nearly 58,000 children and young adults. Polio killed thousands. It left others unable to walk and dependent on wheelchairs or crutches. Patients who were no longer able to breathe on their own had to remain in huge metal cylinders that mechanically pumped air into their lungs.
Those "iron lungs" were chilling images in old movie newsreels that are now consigned to dusty archives. At the movies today, we laugh and feel the triumph when polio-stricken Forrest Gump runs so fast that his steel-and-leather braces fly apart.
In real life, the triumph over polio was achieved by medical pioneers: Drs. John Enders, Frederick Robbins, and Thomas Weller, who isolated the polio virus; Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin who developed the vaccines against it; and many others. Thanks to their work, polio is now eradicated in the Western Hemisphere. The World Health Organization reports that it could be eliminated from the rest of the world by the year 2000.
It's ironic that so many young adults who are the beneficiaries of this medical victory reject the very process by which the scourge of polio and so many other diseases have been removed from their lives.
They embrace a movement that rejects work with animals in medical research. This "animal rights" campaign has many names, many acronyms: In Defense of Animals, PETA, ALF, PAWS, HSUS -- the Human Society of the United States. Leaders of the movement claim that animal research was useless in fighting polio. That's simply not true. The virus was first isolated in cell cultures taken from the kidneys of primates. The Salk and Sabin vaccines were developed in animal models, then tested on thousands of animals for efficacy and safety before being given to children. Lab animals are still needed to safety-test every new batch of vaccine produced today.
Polio would still be destroying young lives today if scientists had not been able to work with lab animals. Dr. Sabin clearly stated the importance of such research shortly before his death. "There could be no oral polio vaccine without the use of innumerable animals," he told an interviewer in 1993. Today, as work contiunes on treatments and cures for AIDS, cystic fibrosis, cancer, muscular dystrophy, and a host of other diseases, the need for reseaerch with lab animals remains.
To the teenagers and young adults today who as children received the polio vaccine, polio is only a word, not a fear or a reality. The benefits of animal research are far removed from their minds.
Those who do remember the terror -- parents of young polio patients and parents who drove to hospitals fearing their child might be the next victim -- know that what the polio research pioneers accomplished in their laboratories was nothing short of a life-saving miracle.
As we observe National Biomedical Research Day (October 21), we must look back to acknowledge the medical breakthroughs gained through the vital relationship between researchers and animals, and look forward to the development of new vaccines, cures, and treatments by dedicated scientists who continue to work with animals. That is the legacy of biomedical research for which we should be grateful and supportive.
A professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Joseph E. Murray, who performed the first kidney transplant in 1954 and in 1990 received the Nobel Prize for his breakthrough transplant research, writes here on behalf of Americans for Medical Progress, which can be reached at (703) 836-9595
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