Group faults UW use of ferrets in medical training
A national animal-welfare group has filed a complaint against the University of Washington for using live ferrets to train pediatric residents to insert breathing tubes in premature babies.
Seattle Times health reporter
A national physicians group has filed a federal complaint against the University of Washington, saying its use of ferrets to train medical residents in emergency procedures on babies and children violates a federal animal-welfare law.
The residents, who are learning to insert breathing tubes in premature infants, practice on anesthetized ferrets, confirmed Dr. Dennis Mayock, a professor of pediatrics and medical director of the UW's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
The complaining group, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, based in Washington, D.C., says only about 13 percent of the pediatric-residency programs in the United States use animals for such training.
The UW is "using an educational method that, in our view, is not justifiable," said Dr. John Pippin, a Dallas cardiologist who helped write the complaint.
The nonprofit Physicians Committee, which promotes preventive medicine and alternatives to animal research and animal testing, filed its complaint Wednesday with the federal Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), alleging that the UW has violated the federal Animal Welfare Act.
That law requires consideration of alternatives to procedures that cause more than momentary or slight pain or distress to animals used for research or educational purposes.
The UW's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee must approve the use of animals for training purposes.
In documents to that committee, Mayock said he needs to be able to train students to insert breathing tubes in very low-birth-weight infants, and that simulators — plastic models with realistic anatomical features — are "quite limited" for such babies.
In an interview, Mayock said that while some simulators are able to duplicate a baby at term or age 2 to 3 months, "the airway issue in extremely small infants cannot be duplicated or simulated well enough with any of these current models."
Mayock said the UW, which treats high-risk maternity patients from a five-state area, has a higher percentage of very low birth-weight preemies than many other medical centers in the country. Some of these babies barely weigh a pound, he said, and doctors must be trained to intubate them quickly and carefully or they could die or suffer brain damage.
The UW has been cited in the past for deficiencies in animal research, including allowing a monkey to starve in 2009. In 2008, it had to return $20,000 in federal research grant money after a finding that it had allowed unauthorized surgeries on primates. Inspectors found serious deficiencies in animal-care facilities in 2006 and put the UW on probation.
Since then, however, the UW has spent millions to upgrade animal-care facilities and is now fully accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, hospital spokeswoman Tina Mankowski said.
The UW keeps four ferrets for pediatric training and brings in four to six others for a larger training session each year.
Mayock said the ferrets are well cared for and do not appear to suffer. "They're watched very carefully."
Mayock has told the UW's animal-care committee that ferrets provide a "hardy model" for such training. They are anesthetized and can tolerate six to eight intubation attempts with minimal airway irritation, Mayock said. He said they recover quickly from anesthesia and can be used again in two weeks.
When the ferrets reach age 6 or so, workers find private homes for them, Mayock said. "We do not euthanize them."
The complaint by the Physicians Committee also criticized the UW's use of euthanized rabbits in training residents to insert chest tubes, an emergency procedure that involves inserting a tube directly into the chest wall.
The UW stopped using rabbits for this training a couple of years ago, Mayock said, after trainers found that poultry from groceries worked just as well.
Along with residents, the UW trains emergency-transport workers and doctors from local community hospitals.
The Physicians Committee works with medical schools, residency programs, school districts and other training programs to improve teaching methods without use of animals, according to Pippin. It focuses on the scientific case for non-animal training methods, he said, rather than only on ethical issues.
Pippin said the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association have endorsed the use of simulators for training pediatric residents.
The complaint by his organization likely will trigger an unannounced inspection by the Agriculture Department's APHIS. If the UW is found to be out of compliance with federal law, it will be given a deadline and a reinspection.
"We're not belligerent or holier-than-thou," Pippin said. "We just try to keep abreast of the best practices. Literature has made the argument for us: Using the non-animal methods is a superior approach."
But Mayock said no one yet has compared animal versus simulator training to see which prepares residents better for procedures on newborn babies.
The dispute with Pippin and the Physicians Committee, he said, boils down to a disagreement as to the best way to train doctors and emergency workers to do the procedures.
"They think we're in violation of animal welfare laws. They're entitled to their opinion, but I don't think we are," Mayock said.
"The spirit of the law is to clearly demonstrate there are better alternatives," he said, but at this point, those alternatives are "not to the level of sophistication we need for these very tiny infants."
Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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