Yes, I Experiment On Animals For Scientific Research. No, I’m Not Inhumane

It was January 2017, and I had been eagerly waiting for the fourth season of “Sherlock”, my favourite crime series based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictitious private investigator Sherlock Holmes. However, as I watched the final episode of the season, things took a rather different turn. As Sherlock and his partner-in-crime Dr. Watson faced a series of trials, he couldn’t help but blurt out, “This isn’t torture, this is vivisection.We’re experiencing science from the perspective of lab rats.” Suddenly, I felt like someone had slapped me hard. Here was Sherlock, my favourite fictional character channelising his thoughts in the same inflammatory tone that the community chooses, vilifying us researchers without leaving enough room for us to voice our opinions.

The Thalidomide Tragedy and The Birth Of Research Ethics

Back in the early 20th, there was very little application of moral principles when it came to the medical system. The horrific human experimentation during the Second World War led policymakers to seriously consider putting a system of medical ethics in place. Shortly after the war, thalidomide, a sedative drug came into the market. The sales quickly skyrocketed in a post-war, sleep deprived world. Soon, physicians discovered that the drug was also capable of alleviating certain aspects of morning sickness. Off-label uses of drugs, or prescribing drugs for ailments other than the one for which the drug was specifically approved, was a common practice. Things were going great before physicians started to observe a surge in the number of babies born with birth defects. Thalidomide was soon identified as the culprit and by 1962 and the drug was banned from most European countries.

Now please remember, that we are talking about a time when there was no stringent system of clinical trials in place under the guidance of US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Drug companies used to pass samples to doctors and pay the physicians to collect data from patients. The thalidomide tragedy provided a necessary wake-up call, and many countries, including the US, started shaping the framework of legislations to ensure that the drugs pass through rigorous clinical trials before they could be approved for human patients.

But then, the question remained, if the scientists could not study human patients on ethical grounds, how would they conduct their research to understand disease mechanisms, identify new drug targets or ensure that a prospective drug is safe to be tested on human patients?

Animals have a lot more in common with humans than you would think. About 98% of human genetic makeup is similar to mice. We suffer from similar kinds of diseases and have somewhat identical biology. Thus, when we study animals, it gives us enough perspectives and scientific insights to understand how different cellular mechanisms cross-talk with each other. Quite often, animal activists question us about why we can’t replace animal experimentations with alternative approaches. I remember posting a picture of mine on Instagram in animal research gear, inviting the wrath of an activist who tried to attack me asking why don’t I inject drugs in my own body instead of tormenting the mice. I preferred to remain silent, although I wish I could have narrated to her the story of Barry Marshall, who took a shot of the Helicobacter Pylori bacteria to assess the effect of the same on ulcer formation. It turned out, Marshall was right in his hypothesis and the discovery later won him Nobel Prize. However, if I do something like that today, I would probably get a citation from the ethics commission.

Scientists And Their Connect With Their Subject Animals

More often than not, scientists have to strip off their emotions. Researchers are trained to be rational and objective in their practice of science and we avoid discussing our emotional connections with our scientific pursuits. Thus, it is not difficult to jump to the conclusion that we don’t care about the animals we work with and only see them as research subjects. It is not realised, that just as doctors feel compassionate about their patients but still need to detach themselves to perform their responsibilities, we as scientists also train ourselves to be clinical to be able to address the scientific questions that face us objectively. However, to think that the scientists don’t care would be a gross misunderstanding of the issue. A survey conducted by Nature, one of the world’s most reputed scientific journal, revealed that about 4 out of 5 scientists consider that the elimination of animal experiments is a desirable goal. Moreover, 3 out of 4 of them feel that the biomedical community is not engaging well with the general public to make them appreciate the use of animals in research.

I still remember my first day of animal training in graduate school. The technicians who were responsible for the training warned us that in the past, multiple researchers have fainted during the training, as they could not handle the emotional stress associated with experimentation using live animals. Although I didn’t faint, I had to spend a long time in the pool that evening to calm myself. From that first exposure, it took me a few months to gradually accept the necessary evil of animal experimentation. Even now, as I continue my research with experimental cancer models in mice and my girlfriend’s mother thinks I am heartless to ‘give tumors to animals’, my heart still melts when I look at those beady little eyes when I am not actively working with them.

In an ideal world, we wish we could completely replace animal experiments with a perfect model. Unfortunately, computer simulations or even a rather sophisticated three-dimensional cell culture cannot closely mimic the complexities of a living system. And thus, animal models remain an irreplaceable resource for presumably the near future. But, given the circumstances, as a scientific community, we need to engage with the public to make ourselves heard, clarify where we stand, and showcase that we care about the animals too.

Image Credits : Wikimedia Commons
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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