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Physicians group files complaint against UVa for using live animals in surgery training

A national nonprofit has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service against the University of Virginia for its use of live animals in surgical teaching.

The complaint was filed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, whose website claims it promotes a plant-based diet, preventive medicine and alternatives to animal research. The group has 12,000 physician members.

In the complaint, the group claims UVa is approved to use as many as 32 pigs a year as part of its procedural teaching for general surgery residents. This use is at odds with the current standards of practice in general surgery residency training in the United States, the group argues.

Under the Animal Welfare Act, UVa meets the statutory definition of a “research facility” and is required to comply with the statute’s regulations and standards, according to the complaint.

“The Physicians Committee believes that inadequate oversight by UVa’s [Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee] is responsible for the approval and ongoing use of live animals in its general surgery residency program,” the complaint reads.

The complaint requests that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA investigate the university.

Dr. John J. Pippin, of the Physicians Committee, said in an interview that UVa’s use of animals is avoidable and is improper when alternatives exist.

Pointing to examples cited in the complaint, Pippin said alternatives include virtual reality laparoscopic simulators that mimic the procedures.

“UVa already has a state-of-the-art facility — the Medical Simulation Center — that surely can provide some alternative training methods,” he said. “UVa has ended live animal use for all its other medical instruction and the fact is, the currently available simulators and human cadavers are as good as and better than using pigs.”

Of the six medical institutes in Virginia that have surgical residencies, UVa is the only one that continues to use live animals, Pippin said.

Additionally, he said it is not typical for the Physicians Committee to file a complaint with the USDA, with the group instead opting to look for “win-win” solutions to the use of animals in medical training.

Eric Swensen, spokesman for the UVa Health System, said the university has been using live pigs for 10 years as part of its training practice.

In an email, Swensen wrote that in one to two lab sessions a year, laparoscopic surgery is taught to general surgery residents. The training sessions use four pigs to teach 16 physician residents.

The pigs are anesthetized throughout the laparoscopic surgical procedure and they are monitored by UVa veterinary staff, he wrote, and are euthanized at the end of the procedure while still under anesthesia.

“Each time the protocol is renewed, the curriculum committee for general surgery certifies that no reasonable alternative is available to teach this specific laparoscopic surgical technique,” he wrote. “The organs repaired using this laparoscopic surgical technique are similar in pigs and humans.”

According to Swensen, as part of a federally mandated annual review, the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects UVa’s care of the pigs and has not identified any issues.

“As part of our regular review process, we will continue to examine alternatives to teaching this specific surgical method,” he wrote. “As soon as a suitable alternative is identified, we will change this laparoscopic surgery training protocol.”


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