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Observations Medicine and the Media

How the media and animal rights activists put avalanche burial study on ice

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 14 July 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c3778
  1. Peter Paal1,
  2. Patrick Braun1,
  3. Hermann Brugger2,
  4. Giacomo Strappazzon2,
  5. Markus Falk3
  1. 1Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine, Innsbruck Medical University, Innsbruck, Austria
  2. 2EURAC Institute of Mountain Emergency Medicine, Bolzano, Italy
  3. 3Inova Q, Bruneck, Italy
  1. Correspondence to: P Paal peter.paal{at}

    Why did a research study into the effects of hypothermia on avalanche survival hit central European headlines earlier this year and spark 35 000 protest emails? Peter Paal and colleagues report

    On 14 January this year in Vent in the Austrian Tyrol we were forced to call off an approved avalanche burial study involving anaesthetised piglets on the fourth of the 10 planned days of the study. We had no choice but to shut down the study because of overwhelming negative and sensational media coverage, closely followed by massive criticism and protests from animal rights activists and a few politicians.1 Local people involved in the project had withdrawn their support, fearing repercussions for tourism, the economic mainstay of the valley. Headlines in Austrian, German, and Italian news media were along the lines of “Pigs buried alive in snow,” suggesting that animal cruelty had occurred. More than 200 newspapers worldwide, and national as well as international television and radio stations, reported on the avalanche project.

    Avalanche survival is only partly understood. About 70% of completely buried avalanche victims have a traumatic death or die from asphyxia,2 3 and survival for more than 15-35 minutes is possible only in an air pocket.4 The interaction between hypoxia (oxygen deficiency), hypercapnia (carbon dioxide excess), and hypothermia (core body temperature of less than 35°C) was first described in a human study,5 but clarifying the effects of hypothermia on survival in an avalanche is possible only with …

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