By Dr. Robert Sharpe
Scientific Director of The International Association Against Painful Experiments on Animals.
In the heated debate surrounding animal experiments, it is easy to forget that vivisection is just one method of research: there are others. Most crucial to the advance of medicine are human studies. Vital clues come from monitoring the health of large numbers of people whilst scanning techniques like positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging enable researchers to investigate disease in individual patients. Further information can be derived from autopsy findings and studies with healthy volunteers. Much research can be carried out in the test tube, and countless in vitro systems have been devised to assess both the beneficial and harmful effects of drugs and chemicals. Then there are computer simulations of biological systems which aid drug design, medical research and education.
The importance of non-animal methods, and the way in which they are used, can be gleaned from their contribution to the prevention and cure of disease.
Combating the Major Killers
Epidemiology is the technique which allows doctors to find the causes of ill-health so that preventive action can be taken. The method is based on comparisons: epidemiologists obtain clues by comparing disease rates in groups or populations with differing levels of exposure to the factor under investigation.
Early epidemiological studies revealed that people who lived and worked in dirty, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions with little food or clean water, were much more likely to die of infectious disease. Average life expectancy during the 19th century was therefore very low. However, the findings were used by social reformers to bring about much needed improvements in public health and social legislation.(1) As a result, by the time the first drugs to treat infectious disease were introduced in the 1930s, life expectancy in Britain had already increased by 20 years.(2) In Sweden, between 1856 and 1936 the corresponding increase was 24 years! Edward Kass, a President of the Infectious Disease Society of America, described the decline in infectious disorders and their correlation with improving socio-economic conditions as the most important happening in the history of the health of man'.(3)
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