Thursday, July 27, 2006

Vivisection opinion polls

Looking at MORI polls of public opinion in the UK on the subject of animal experiments, you think you've spotted a clear trend but then you realize it's not so simple.

There have been 3 MORI polls on the subject in the last few years: 1999, 2002, 2005.

Comparing the data, the trend seems to be going badly for anti-vivisection.

In the 2005 survey, 75% of the GB population responded that they can accept animal experimentation so long as it is for medical purposes: the corresponding percentage in 2002 was the same 75%, but in 1999 the figure was only 64%. Correspondingly, fewer people than before disagree with that statement: 14% in 2005, 15% in 2002, 24% in 1999.

A similar proportion (76%) say they can accept animal experimentation as long as there is no unnecessary suffering to the animals (it was 69% in 1999). 72% of adults claim to agree with animal experimentation for all types of medical research where there is no alternative (61% in 1999).

Something must be wrong, though, because in 2005 53% (58% in 1999) said they can accept animal research only for life-threatening diseases, which seems somehow odd in view of the 75% accepting animal experimentation so long as it is for medical purposes: clearly the questionnaire used in this poll, allowing respondents to agree or disagree with a number of statements (some of which limit the significance of others) gives results which are not as clearcut as it seems prima facie.

That response of 53% accepting animal research only for life-threatening diseases is relatively positive for the anti-vivisection cause, which qualifies the magnitude of that other datum: 75% accepting animal experimentation so long as it is for medical purposes.

Anyway, another depressing result is that fewer respondents in the poll now report a lack of trust for the regulatory systems in place, compared with before. In 1999, 65% of people agreed with the statement "I have a lack of trust in the regulatory system about animal research". By 2002 this had dropped to 50% and in 2005 to 36%. And the proportion actively disagreeing with this statement has grown from 11% (in 1999) to 19% (in 2002) to 37% in 2005.

In 1999, 29% said that they trusted scientists not to cause unnecessary suffering to the animals being experimented on. In 2002 this figure had increased to 39%, and in 2005 it is 52%. The corresponding figures for the proportions who disagree with this statement are 56% (in 1999), 44% (in 2002), and 31% in 2005.

52% of participants expect that the rules in Britain on experimentation are well enforced, compared to 22% who think they are not. The agreement figure has risen from 29% in 1999 and 40% in 2002; and the disagree figure has decreased from 41% in 1999 and 29% in 2002.

On the other hand, online opinion polls often produce opposite results. Check these:


Mister Poll

Irish Health


True, online opinion polls are not necessarily reliable but that also applies to all opinion polls: what makes a survey reliable is the methodology used, not just whether it is done on the internet or offline.

We can make a number of conjectures. The MORI 1999 survey was conducted for the Medical Research Council, but the MORI 2002 and 2005 surveys, markedly more favourable to vivisectors, were conducted for the so-called Coalition for Medical Progress (CMP), an organization which the National Anti-Vivisection Society described as "an extremist group of vested interests representing a very narrow area of medical research", responsible among other things for the online petition in favour of animal testing also signed by the Prime Minister Tony Blair.

We know that one of the reasons why opinion polls have limited reliability lies in the way questions are formulated and in the attitudes of the pollsters towards the respondents. So, a different sponsor for the poll may produce significant differences.

Another factor which may have had an impact, producing different results over the years, could be the diverse composition of the population polled, due to the great influx of immigration to Britain of the last few years.

Last but not least, we could also ask ourselves whether certain tactics of direct action or other methods, perceived by the public to be means of intimidation and overly aggressive, might have alienated sectors of public opinion.
The rise of new pro-vivisection groups, like Pro-Test for instance, seems to be another sign of this.

One thing which I've noticed is that the veil of secrecy that once surrounded vivisection, as far as public opinion and popular culture are concerned, has now dropped.
Some time ago, in films and on the TV the words "animal models" or "experiments on mice" were taboo and never uttered: the reference was always to an unspecified "research" or "scientific studies".
That taboo seems to be gone now.

I find this significant because "popular culture" is indicative of the public mood. What I think it shows is that the public has now been exposed to the issue of animal experimentation enough to be de-sensitised: it's got used to it.

The end of the secrecy could be a good thing: it could mean that the debate over vivisection is now more widespread and centre stage. Or it could mean that people are more accepting of animal experiments, as the MORI polls seem to indicate, in which case maybe we have to review something we've done wrong.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Fen-Phen drug combination: another case where animal studies misled research

Weight-loss drugs fenfluramine and dexfenfluramine, used in the fen-phen combination, caused heart valve problems in patients. Cases of primary pulmonary hypertension stopped the use of the Fen-Phen drug combination as a weight-loss aid.

Some sources say that the combination had been tested on animals (specifically, dogs and cats) and it was safe for them, others say that the individual substances had been tested on animals but they had not been extensively tested on animals in combination.

Gina Kolata reported in the New York Times of September 16, 1997, on fen-phen:
"Why weren't these problems [heart valve abnormalities] noticed before? Dieters in Europe had used Dexfenfluramine for decades. Dr. Friedman [an FDA official] said he could only speculate. No one had initially thought to examine patients' hearts, he said, because animal studies had never revealed heart abnormalities and heart valve defects are not normally associated with drug use." (emphasis added)