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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: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c3778 (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}uki.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criticism and protests from animal rights activists and a few politicians.1 Local people involved in the project had withdrawn their support, fearing repercussions for tourism, the economic mainstay of the valley.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 animal testing. For instance, if deep hypothermia ensues quickly after burial in an avalanche, cardiac arrest may be survivable for longer than currently suspected, with the consequence that some buried people may have been declared dead on site too early.6 Avalanche burial affects around 150 mostly young and healthy athletes a year in developed countries,4 often in conditions of low atmospheric oxygen partial pressure corresponding to an altitude of 2000-2500 m. Thus to realistically emulate avalanche burial we set up the study site in the village of Vent, which is at an altitude 1900 m and where sufficient avalanche-like snow was available.

    In a multipurpose building an operating theatre was set up where the piglets were anaesthetised but still spontaneously breathing. They were protected from the cold, and endotracheal tubes and systemic arterial and pulmonary arterial lines were inserted. The piglets were then taken to the avalanche burial site and, after baseline measurements were taken, were placed in an artificially created air pocket and buried to a depth of 1 m in snow. While they were buried, haemodynamic function, body core temperature, and blood gas measurements were taken. To analyse hypothermia induced myocardial dysfunction, heart biopsies took place after the animals had died.7 Furthermore, a novel non-invasive temperature sensor to measure body core temperature was tested in the field.8

    The study was approved by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research and was supervised on site by a ministry representative. However, the European Union directive 86/609/EC and respective Austrian laws regulating animal testing are hotly debated, and many animal activist groups are against any form of the directive.

    Although animal rights activists represent a small minority in Austria, their opposition to our study was largely supported by sensationalist reporting in the media, and the issue became a topic of major public debate in a single day. Google Insights for Search (www.google.com/insights/search/), which enables comparison of search term volumes in different areas, showed that the German search terms for “animal testing” (Tierversuch) and “pigs” (Schweine) were more frequent on 14 and 15 January, the days our study became widely known. No similar surge in the use of the respective English terms was seen, indicating that the outrage was mainly an Austrian, German, and Swiss phenomenon; English language news reports mentioned that the pigs had been anaesthetised.

    The study team, associated institutions, and supporting local people received more than 35 000 protest emails, and there were several threats of violence and death, including one bomb threat. Consequently we had to suspend the study. In addition, the study team and the former Austrian minister of science, who is now the European commissioner for regional policy, were sued by animal rights activists for animal cruelty and murder. These complaints have since been dismissed by the state attorney.

    We are, however, still accused by activists of having conducted an unethical study, as an intervention already exists in preventive rewarming of all avalanche victims. This, however, would give rise to additional annual costs of about €600 000 (£500 000; $750 000) to €1.2m in Austria alone, blocking operating theatres and intensive care beds to rewarm these possibly hypothermic avalanche patients with unknown outcomes, thereby imperilling potentially life saving procedures in other patients with a higher chance of survival.

    A non-representative Europe-wide public opinion poll, carried out by the European Commission, showed that 50% of people believe that animal protection in studies is poor and that 86% consider that the European Union needs to do more to improve the welfare of animals in experiments. However, it is noteworthy that 85% of respondents stated that their main sources of information on animal experimentation included animal protection organisations, while only 32% cited government or educational institutions among their main sources.9

    If the media publish misinformation and the public subsequently becomes enraged, isn’t this our own fault? Winning the “war” on animal testing, as stated by the former UK science minister Paul Drayson,10should be the scientist’s duty. Thus initiatives to inform the public, such as the UK based Pro-Test group,11 which campaigns in favour of animal testing, are essential. Unfortunately equivalents in continental Europe seem to be lacking.

    What are the wider implications for biomedical research if sensational reporting, animal rights activists, and negative public opinion are able to block an approved and well conducted animal study? Research in many biomedical fields (such as oncology, pharmacology, surgery, and organ transplantation) may be hampered, because at some stage of development data are generated and validated in animal studies. If a small minority is able to halt animal studies, scientists may stop conducting research in some fields. Knowledge, scientific and clinical advances, jobs, and eventually human lives may be at risk. After our experience with this study we urge politicians, higher education institutions, and scientists to justify animal research to the public. At the moment, however, it is unclear whether our study will ever be concluded.

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c3778

    Footnotes

    • Competing interests: All authors have completed the Unified Competing Interest form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf (available on request from the corresponding author) and declare that (1) Innsbruck Medical University and the EURAC Institute of Mountain Emergency Medicine co-financed this study; (2) PP and PB are employed full time by the department of anesthesiology and critical care medicine, Innsbruck Medical University, Austria. HB is employed part time and GS full time by the EURAC Institute of Mountain Emergency Medicine. MF is the study’s statistician and co-owner of the software company INOVA Q, which has no financial relations with this study. No author has any further relationships with any company that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous three years; (3) their spouses, partners, or children have no financial relationships that may be relevant to the submitted work; and (4) no author has any non-financial interests that may be relevant to the submitted work.

    References

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