Animal abuse alleged at Bethesda med school
Prosecutors asked to stop testing of live pigs, gerbils
A former Maryland health secretary and a nonprofit physicians organization are asking local prosecutors to halt alleged animal abuse at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, as well as Johns Hopkins University.
The former secretary, Martin Wasserman, and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine contend that the continued use of live pigs at both medical schools and the use of live gerbils at USUHS to practice surgery and intubation and observe conditions violate Maryland's law against animal cruelty, inflicts suffering and is unnecessary.
The schools are among seven of 176 accredited medical schools in the U.S. and Canada that still use live animals.
Most medical schools have moved to sophisticated simulators, modeled on humans. Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore, has its own simulator, and USUHS could make use of the National Capital Area Medical Simulation Center, the Washington, D.C.-based group says.
Wasserman, a pediatrician, and his wife, Barbara Wasserman, an internist, are JHU medical school graduates. They tried to convince administrators and the curriculum committee to stop using animals before asking prosecutors to step in, they said.
"Simulation is not just an alternative but better training" as well as "an opportunity to teach medical students about compassion," he said.
Use of animals for research is exempt from Maryland law, but the exemption does not apply to using live animals for surgery and such practices, Wasserman said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office would have jurisdiction over USUHS, because it is a federal institution, said Seth Zucker, a spokesman for Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy.
The Maryland statute states that it is intended to protect each animal in the state "from intentional cruelty, including animals ...used in privately, locally, state, or federally funded scientific or medical activities."
The physicians committee is weighing its options, including asking the Montgomery state's attorney to reconsider the decision that USUHS is outside its jurisdiction, associate general counsel Mark Kennedy said.
In a response e-mailed to The Gazette on Monday, USUHS officials said they "regularly review the use of animals, and when reasonably possible, substitute other methods so long as these methods do not compromise our primary mission."
Asked how using simulators instead of live animals would "compromise [their] primary mission," USUHS provided no response by Tuesday.
In 2008, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine complained to the Department of Defense about USUHS' use of live ferrets to teach students how to insert tubes into infants. The school stopped the practice later that year, organization spokeswoman Tara Failey said.
In a statement defending its practices, Johns Hopkins University officials said the school complies with the regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals and other applicable government and institutional guidelines and policies.
But Wasserman, who also holds a law degree, said those regulations apply to research animals. Animals the schools are using to teach students are being employed for practice, not research, and so are protected by Maryland law, he said.
The Baltimore State's Attorney's office is looking at the facts of the JHU case, Shonte Drake, a spokeswoman for that office, said Monday.