In the late 1940s, polio crippled and killed thousands of people around the world every year. Polio reached a peak in the United States in 1952, with over 21,000 paralytic cases. After a vaccine was developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, polio was brought under control and practically eliminated as a public health problem in industrialized countries. Today, the disease has been eliminated from most of the world; only 16 countries worldwide have cases of polio in limited areas (Cornell University Feline Health Center; UNICEF). Today’s children routinely receive a vaccine that provides a lifetime of protection from the disease. Children are also immunized against typhus, diphtheria, whooping cough, smallpox, and tetanus. Untold millions of people around the world are healthy adults because of these vaccines, which were made possible through animal research.
Diabetes is another example of the importance of biomedical research. In the United States, 7% of the population (more than 20 million people) have diabetes. Over 1 million new cases of diabetes are diagnosed each year, and based on death certificate data, diabetes contributed to nearly 225,000 deaths in 2002 alone (American Diabetes Association; National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse). Without insulin treatments to regulate their blood sugar levels, many more diabetics would die. Dogs were crucial to the research that identified the cause of diabetes, which led to the development of insulin. Recently, researchers have developed insulin pumps to replace injections, and current transplant research offers the hope that diabetes can be cured. The importance of animal research to those suffering from heart and circulatory diseases cannot be overlooked. According to recent estimates, one in four U.S. adults has high blood pressure, which can cause strokes, heart attacks, and heart disease, and nearly one-third of them don’t know it (American Heart Association). Research involving animals has helped identify the causes of high blood pressure and develop more effective drugs to control the problem. Other research has resulted in treatments for strokes and heart attacks that save thousands of lives and reduce recovery time. Dogs have been especially important to researchers who developed open-heart surgery, pacemakers, and heart transplants. These techniques have revolutionized the therapy for people who have severe heart disease.
In spite of the remarkable medical progress during the last century, there is still much work to be done. As the average life span increases, more people will develop diseases that primarily affect the elderly—Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and certain types of cancers.
There is still much to be learned about diseases such as AIDS. And millions of people around the world suffer from other incurable diseases such as cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and genetic birth defects. Researchers are trying to learn the causes of and the cures for these diseases.
Animals benefit from biomedical research as well. Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV) infections are major causes of death in cats. In the U.S., it is estimated that 2–3% of all cats are infected with one or both of these diseases. A vaccine is available to prevent these diseases, but much additional work is necessary to explain these diseases and their treatment.
Sometimes research can have unexpected benefits. In 1978, there was a sudden, worldwide outbreak of a virus among dogs which caused vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration and, frequently, death. Researchers soon discovered that this disease, called canine parvovirus, was similar to the feline panleukopenia virus. Since a vaccine was already available for the feline panleukopenia virus, a vaccine for parvovirus was developed, tested, and made available for distribution within a year. Now recognized as one of the most significant success stories of modern veterinary science, the parvovirus vaccine checked the spread of the disease among adult dogs in the United States almost immediately. However, puppies between 6 and 16 weeks of age are still at significant risk of being infected by the virus, and further research is needed to protect pets of all ages.