There are animals in your medicine cabinet.
Well, not, most likely, live animals. But most medications contain some kind of animal derivative, German authors Reuben Proctor and Lars Thomsen write in their book “Veganissimo A-Z,” which has just been translated into English.
Lactose, commonly used as a carrier, stabilizer or a bulk-adding agent in medicines, comes from animals. Gelatin from cattle and pigs’s skin and bone is widely used in capsules, pulls and tablets. Derivatives such as shellacs from insects and magnesium stearate, made from animals’ fatty acids, are also frequently used in manufacturing tablets, capsules and powdered forms of medicines. Cochineal or carmine is a red dye made from the shells of crushed insects used as a coloring agent in medicines.
Proctor and Thomsen also note that vegans need to be aware that some drugs (insulin, hormone preparations, amino acid infusions) contain active ingredients, meaning that substances that are biologically active (such as bacteria and yeast, which are used to produce insulin) are among their ingredients.
Even medicines that do not contain animal derivatives or active ingredients are not “animal-free.” By law, medicines must be tested on non-human animals before bring approved for use for us. Animals are used in the manufacturing of medicines we commonly use for health, at many stages of their production.
Proctor tells NPR that of the extensive lengths he has gone to avoid using medications based on animals. When in need of surgery last year, Proctor requested not to use heparin, an anti-coagulant that is made from the intestinal mucous membranes of pigs. There is a synthetic substitute, fondaparinux, but (as his doctor told him) it comes with a heightened risk of hemorrhage, so Proctor found himself having to use heparin, very unwillingly.
We are dependent on animals for many products that we rely for our health. But if you are vegan and prefer to avoid using any products that involved animal testing, what can you do?
As the U.K.-based Vegan Society observes,
…we live in an imperfect world. … In The Vegan Society’s Memorandum of Association, veganism is used to denote a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude- as far as possible and practicable- all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to animals. You yourself know best what your own particular situation is, what efforts you can make and what possible and practicable means for you.
While it is very likely impossible to have truly vegan medication, there are ways to minimize this, says VeganWoman.com, noting that you should take medications if not doing so would endanger your health. But you can eat healthfully (avoiding processed foods and animal products in your diet), exercise and do all that you can to maintain your health.
The use of animals in manufacturing medicine poses an ethical quandary for anyone who chooses not to eat meat and prefers to avoid using animal products. But it is also a wake-up call about how intertwined animals are in everyone’s life in ways we are not even thinking of. Certainly, it’s a huge motivation to advocate for researchers to develop alternatives to animal testing, such as using cell and tissue cultures and computer modeling, and all the more reason to campaign for humane treatment of animals in any and all settings.
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