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What Vegans Should Know About Medicine and the Pharmaceutical Industry



As the number of people following a Vegan lifestyle grows, we’ve seen hugely positive changes in the food, fashion and beauty industries. However, some sectors have stubbornly refused to update their ideas and practices about animal cruelty along with the rest of the world, with perhaps the most conservative being the pharmaceutical industry.


How are Animals Used in the Pharmaceutical Industry?


In the UK, medicines cannot be licensed for human use until they have been tested on animals. While we don’t know exactly how many animals have been experimented on for medical research, figures from the Home Office show that 3.79 million procedures were carried out on living animals in the UK in 2017 alone. This includes the testing of mice, rats, rabbits, fish, dogs, horses and monkeys for the development of new treatments and medicines.


Pharmaceutical companies view animals as dispensable. They are kept in small enclosures, subjected to painful experiments, isolated from other animals and eventually killed. Animal vivisection not only causes severe physical pain but also intense psychological damage.


The pharmaceutical industry attempts to justify animal vivisection by claiming that such experimentation is necessary to protect human life, yet empirical studies have shown that animal models in scientific studies ‘fall far short of being able to predict human responses’. Many of the critical medical advancements made throughout history, such as the breakthrough development of penicillin, can also be attributed to human trial and error - not animal testing.


Are There Ethical Alternatives to Animal Vivisection?


According to The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), animals are ‘only used in medical research when absolutely necessary and unavoidable’. They also claim that animal vivisection can only be justified if there are no viable alternatives. Yet, there are a growing number of ethical alternatives to animal testing that are routinely ignored by many large companies. These include:


● In vitro testing methods, which study human tissue and cells in Petri dishes;

● In silico methods, which use computer simulations to mimic the effect of treatments on human bodies;

● Human volunteer trials, which use advanced scanning technologies and microdosing techniques on human models.


The UK beauty industry has been using methods like these since the banning of animal testing for cosmetics in 1998 - so what's taking pharmaceuticals so long?


Are Pharmaceutical Companies Making Progress?


Although some pharmaceutical companies have made huge advancements towards developing and using ethical alternatives to animal testing, others are dragging their feet.


In 2014, many of the leading pharmaceutical companies operating in the UK signed the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. The concordat supposedly encourages them to be transparent in their animal testing methods and to justify how many animals they use for live experimentation and why. However, secret footage from inside laboratories continues to show that animals are frequently used in circumstances where ethical alternatives could and should have been chosen. Footage also shows that animals are kept in cramped, isolated conditions and left to suffer without pain relief.


Change needs to happen - and it needs to happen at a much quicker rate. Pharmaceutical companies may not be able to reverse the animal suffering they have already caused, but they can invest time and money into further developing in vitro and in silico methods to pave the way towards a kinder future.


Does Medication Contain Animal Ingredients?


In addition to being tested on animals, many types of medication contain animal-derived ingredients. These include gelatin, lactose, insulin, shellac, carmine, Glucosamine and Premarin. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to avoid medicines containing animal-derived ingredients, especially if you require them for ongoing health conditions.


There is also a frustrating lack of regulation within this area. Many solutions aren’t labelled for Vegan use, and when it comes to taking prescription medication, you may need to rely on your GP to let you know whether the product contains animal ingredients or not.


What Can We Do?


It can be disheartening to recognise that many of us have little choice but to rely on a system that doesn’t align with our beliefs. Sometimes, we must use medicines that contain animal-derived ingredients or treatments that have been tested on animals. If we can avoid them by living a healthy lifestyle and asking for Vegan-friendly medication then we should, but it is not always possible or practical to do so.


Nevertheless, there are steps we can take to encourage the pharmaceutical industry to develop treatments that don’t rely on animal suffering or exploitation. For instance, we can urge pharmaceutical companies to take a more holistic approach to medical care by investing in functional medicine. Natural healing therapies like The Gerson Therapy or The Hypocrates Institute have shown amazing results by substituting quick-fix tablets for individualised, immunity-boosting treatments.


We can also sign petitions, donate to activists and organisations, educate others about the reality of animal experimentation, and hold pharmaceutical companies accountable when they choose not to use ethical alternatives to vivisection.

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