One of the issues that seems to give activists undue traction is medical research on animals.

By leading with a parade of images showing injured rabbits and sickly puppies, advocates of the “just leave animals alone” message have convinced far too many consumers that even legitimate clinical scientists are torturing thousands of our furry friends in the venal pursuit of greed, profits and market share.

Of course, the cosmetics industry shot itself in the foot years ago by A) not having a prepared response to those attacks and B) by attempting to justify the allegations on the basis of a lame excuse about consumer safety.

But with genuine medical research, as opposed to testing health and beauty products, the lines have been blurred, with the public seemingly unable to distinguish between testing the effects of some celebrity-endorsed face cream and the search for treatments that could cure such diseases as diabetes — which affects nearly 30 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The well-heeled groups that oppose animal agriculture in favor of vegan lifestyles don’t bother pouring money into the stop animal research campaigns, but they love the fact that the messaging aligns nicely into their agenda. Like the attacks on puppy mills, anything that demonizes the use of animals for profit helps promote the cause — the “cause” being soliciting fundraising on the basis of people’s concerns about animal welfare.

Never lose sight of that fact: The end point of every attack on any industry involved with animals isn’t about promoting reform, it’s about collecting maximum amounts of cash.

A threat to the USA

Now (finally), there is an issue that may silence the demands that “computer modeling can replace animal testing,” and that is the Zika virus.

The World Health Organization has just declared a public health emergency in the ongoing outbreak of the virus, as well as its link to microcephaly in infants. WHO announced that Zika has recently reached “pandemic levels” and is forecast to spread to nearly all of North America.

Let me repeat that statement: Zika isn’t just a problem for Brazil as it prepares for the Summer Olympics, or some distant threat that only affects people in some African nation most Americans couldn’t find on a map if they were getting paid by the minute. There is now real concern that Zika may spread to the United States.

And here’s the problem with that scenario: There is no vaccine. No effective treatment for the virus, which is spread by mosquitos. It causes a serious illness similar to dengue fever, but there is also the threat that the virus could trigger Guillain–Barré syndrome in some patients and the aforementioned microencephaly in pregnant women.

No need to detail the horror of a baby born with an underdeveloped head, but Guillain–Barré syndrome is no joke. It’s an autoimmune disease that attacks the nervous system, causing muscle weakness and respiratory failure, and it can be life-threatening.

Even as public health officials around the world are struggling to control the spread of the Zika virus, the National Institutes of Health is scrambling to accelerate research into an effective treatment. And guess what modality is essential to that effort?

“It is now critically important to confirm, through careful epidemiological and animal studies, whether or not a causal link exists between Zika virus infections in pregnant women and microcephaly in their newborn babies,” Francis Collins, the NIH director said in a statement.

Animal research will be integral in the discovery of vaccines and treatments to stop the spread of Zika, Collins said.

At the same time, scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAIAD) issued a notice that the institute intends to fast-track funding for Zika research, with one of the top priorities being development of animal models to study the disease and test potential treatments.

According to reporting from the Foundation for Biomedical Research, the notice called for “studies to develop animal models to study ZIKV pathogenesis and evaluate candidate therapeutics and vaccines.”

Translation: We need to infect animals with Zika, observe what happens and try to figure what treatments might actually work.

Once scientists learn enough about the Zika virus to develop a vaccine, animal research will be critical to test antigens that could trigger a positive immune response to the virus. Such research, as FDA officials would confirm, is crucial for determining “the safety and efficacy” of potential vaccines.

There is no other option.

Right now, Zika remains a problem other people have to worry about, and Americans have doctoral degrees in ignoring problems that don’t immediately affect their lives.

If and when we are affected, we can only hope the medical and scientific communities have gotten ahead of the disease.

If they have, we can thank animal research.

If not, we’ll be the loudest voices demanding that such testing proceed without reservation. □

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator