A Davis-Monthan Air Force Base unit will inflict wounds on live pigs this weekend for training in treating combat trauma.

At least 10 members of the 306 Rescue Squadron, an Air Force Reserve unit, will hone their skills on pigs that will be anesthetized and subjected to wounds that simulate those that ground troops may receive on the battlefield.

Such training is allowed by the Department of Defense, however the agency recommends using alternative training methods whenever possible, provided they "produce scientifically or educationally valid or equivalent results."

Superior alternate methods of training do exist, say representatives of Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which sent a letter last week to Col. Harold Maxwell, commander of the 943rd Rescue Group at Davis-Monthan, and a petition this week to three representatives from the Defense Department and Air Force asking that the live-animal wound-care training be canceled.

In an email response, Lt. Col. Melinda F. Morgan, spokeswoman for the Defense Department, wrote: "At this time, a total replacement for the animal model does not exist for several combat trauma procedures. However, the Department of Defense maximizes the use of non-animal alternatives to ensure minimal use of animals."

Calls and emails for additional comment were not returned Thursday.

Among four physicians who signed the petition is Dr. William Morris, chief of neurosurgery at the MultiCare System in Tacoma, Wash., and a retired Army lieutenant colonel. He knows firsthand the benefits of using training simulators instead of live animals.

"Twenty, 30 years ago I took the training and we used animals and maybe at that time it was as close as we could get, but nowadays there's no excuse for still using them because the alternatives are so realistic and basically much better," he said.

Another physician who signed the petition is Dr. David Jacobs of Tucson. He did not respond to calls for comment.

Animal substituteS

Alternatives to live-animal training are used in Tucson at the University of Arizona College of Medicine's Arizona Simulation Technology and Education Center (ASTEC), which opened in 2004.

ASTEC does not use animal tissue in any of its training, instead working with other medical technologists and Hollywood special-effects experts to create artificial tissues so realistic that they bleed; interactive, computerized mannequins; and virtual simulations.

The Defense Department is a leader in replacing live animals with simulations for teaching combat wound care, said neurosurgeon Dr. Allan Hamilton, executive director of ASTEC. However, he said, there is still a need for live animals in some aspects of medical training.

"Right now it's difficult to reproduce all the parameters you have when you are in a real live animal. Any tissue you touch will bleed, there's a reflexive heartbeat, peristalsis," said Hamilton. However, he anticipates advances in technology will eliminate the need for live animals in training within a decade.

One realistic training alternative currently in use is the Human Worn Partial Task Surgical Simulator or "cut suit." It was created by Strategic Operations, a San Diego-based company specializing in "hyper-realistic" training for all branches of military, law enforcement and homeland security. The company, a subsidiary of a movie studio, began offering training with the suit a year ago.

The suit, worn by a person, simulates the treatment of the three most common causes of preventable death on the battlefield: hemorrhages from extremity wounds, collapsed lungs and airway problems, said Kit Lavell, the company's executive vice president.

"This is the first time you can practice all these things with a real human being. It's extremely realistic," he said.

The service, which includes rental of the reusable suit, a trainer and course materials, costs $973 a day, plus travel expenses for the trainer.

The cut suit "has organs, gushes blood; the person who wears it can move around and flail and moan. It's so incredibly realistic it's hard for me to watch because it's so realistic," said Dania DePas, a PCRM spokeswoman.

The realistic quality of training with the suit is far superior to "a pig anesthetized lying on a slab," she said.

Good intentions

A representative from Davis-Monthan said he could not provide information about the company contracted to provide this weekend's live-animal training or the cost of the training.

The PCRM had requested the same information and was told "the private contractor requested it be redacted because they don't want their financial arrangements with the military to be out in the arena because that would put them at a disadvantage with their competitors. It's proprietary information," said Dallas-based cardiologist Dr. John Pippin, director of academic affairs for PCRM.

A 2008 San Antonio Express-News article described the types of wounds inflicted on animals during Army medic training. A tree trimmer was used to cut off the leg of an anesthetized goat. In a 2006 New York Times article, a Navy corpsman said for his combat wound training an anesthetized pig was shot eight times with several types of firearms before it was set on fire. The mission for the corpsman: to keep the animal alive for as long as possible. It survived for 15 hours.

"The intent is obviously good. You want the best care when something goes wrong. But the method is not just cruel … it's archaic and it's discredited and it should be replaced" Pippin said "The Air Force itself even has other programs similar to this that don't use animals. It's a choice that's made by the commander of this particular facility. It's not required that they use pigs. There are numerous other forms of training that do not."

ON Starnet

See copies of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine petition sent to the Department of Defense and the department's policy on use of animals in training at azstarnet.com/pdf

Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at kmatas@azstarnet.com or at 573-4191.