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Matthew Kinsella

TEDCRED 50+

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Given that chimpanzees are endangered, is it ethical to use them in biomedical research?

Chimpanzees are distributed throughout Equatorial Africa, occurring from southern Senegal across the forested belt north of the Congo River to western Uganda and western Tanzania. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, current estimates for the wild population range from 150,000 to 250,000 individuals. The largest populations of chimpanzees occur in central Africa, mainly Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cameroon. Sadly the populations that once habituated Gambia, Burkina Faso, Benin, or Togo are no longer found.

One of the greatest threats to the long-term survival of chimpanzees and other great apes is habitat loss. Between 2000 and 2010 Africa lost over 3 million hectares of its forests. Much of this loss occurred within the chimpanzee range, including the equatorial forest belt. In 2007, the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s classification of chimpanzees satisfied the criteria for ranking as Endangered based on a projected future rate of decline of 50% in three generations (from 1970-2030).

On top of facing habitat loss by logging operations, illegal hunting, and disease, chimpanzees have to worry about being captured for use in biomedical research. Luckily the demand for chimpanzees has been diminishing because many scientists agree that they are no longer necessary for understanding most diseases today. Either they simply don’t prove useful or better alternatives exist. However one exception remains, Hepatitis C (spread by blood-to-blood contact). Today, an estimated 4 million people are infected by Hepatitis C in the United States, and at least 130 million worldwide. Around 350,000 people around the world die from Hepatitis C-induced liver failure each year. There is still no vaccine, and chimpanzees are the only known non-human animals capable of being infected by the virus. No other animal models exist.

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    May 14 2012: As long as strict ethical standards are held, I believe using chimps in biomedical research is ethical. The fact is that we simply can't do the same type of experiments on humans as we can with animals. I'm not entirely familiar as to how researchers obtain chimps, but as long as they are bred and housed within a humane environment, it is fine with me if these endangered animals are used in studies. Stopping medical research on chimps due to their endangered status doesn't really address the real problem here. The fact is that massive habitat loss has led to their decline and in order to improve their conservation status, there needs to be an active effort to conserve their habitat.
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      May 15 2012: Heath, you share the same thoughts on this subject as I do. I believe that if the chimpanzees are bred in captivity for the sole purpose of medical research, then this isn't a true threat to their original population. The wild chimpanzee's are what needs to be monitored and protected. To me, it seems as if these are two separate issues regarding the same species.

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