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Matthew Kinsella

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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 16 2012: Since there is a huge threat to the habitat of chimps adding to the loss in wild populations. Are there no chimps that are bred in captivity? It seems that there would still be some amount of breeding going on in the lab to ease the pressure of taking a threatened species from a degraded area. There would have to be some legal red tape with the countries and regions and removing chimps from their environment. While animal testing is very controversial and unpopular, the testing done on chimps does lead to further advances in finding a cure to Hep C. I still find it hard to get completely behind despite the positive side. I always envision the testing conditions and how the chimps probably don't understand what is being done to them or why. It seems that humans are playing god with other animals lives under the guise of helping humanity? But how much help is actually being found? Are there ways to cut down on the number of chimps that are infected and then tested? I would challenge the medical field to find better ways of testing the chimps while still looking for a vaccine.

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