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Professor Vallance (June 2002 JRSM1) makes the observation that the medical profession has distanced itself from animal research despite being ‘the very group that relies on animal experimentation for the treatment it provides’ and suggests that doctors join the debate on this issue, as they ‘are in a good position to correct misunderstandings and place arguments in a clinically relevant context.’ There would, however, appear to be three areas of concern in Vallance's proposition.
First, doctors cannot rely on animal experiments to forecast the effect of drugs on healthy or sick people, far less on people of different sex, age, ethnic origin, or on unborn children. Secondly, the suggestion that doctors are in ‘a good position’ to correct misunderstandings implies much more than a passing knowledge of animal research. Thirdly, in suggesting that doctors should join the debate, has Vallance considered the reasons that doctors have distanced themselves? Could this be because they are more interested in ‘research that may have results that are directly applicable for clinicians and those making public policy’2, or for moral, ethical, religious or other reasons? Some doctors may be concerned that expressing views opposing animal research might harm their career prospects—in my own case I only went into print3,4 after I had become a consultant.
Medical practitioners should join the debate about the place of animal experimentation in medical research not only for the reasons Vallance puts forward, but also because medical research is failing to stop the rising trend in overall morbidity levels. The most obvious example is diabetes mellitus, which affected about 300 000 people in the UK in the 1950s but which is expected to affect 4 million people by 20105. A useful preliminary to the debate might be a survey of doctors' views, to find out why they have distanced themselves from animal experimentation.