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The Arctic reality of One Health

May 25, 2017


Rachel Blakeslee

Brian Berube of the Alaska Native Rural Veterinary Incorporation
Brian Berube of the Alaska Native Rural Veterinary Incorporation speaks at the One Health workshop of the Week of the Arctic 2017 in Fairbanks, Alaska, about health concerns in Northern Alaska.
Feature Series

Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience

International Policy Institute Fellows in the field

There’s a certain mundane practice to many of the daily aspects of our life. We wake up, get ready for the day, and go about our routines as usual: work, errands, the exchange of casual conversation with friends and neighbors. It is precisely because these activities are so habitual for us that they seem so unremarkable. Now imagine stepping out of your house every day and being too afraid to walk to work or the store because of the packs of stray dogs that run rampant throughout your community. Imagine what you eat for dinner each night dictated by the changes in weather and climate that are beyond your control. Suddenly, these unremarkable tasks become quite noticeable as they bear new weight in actually shaping your life rather than simply being a part of it. While changes in the Arctic can often feel distant and somewhat futuristic, the consequences of those changes have already begun to manifest in many communities of the North. The One Health workshop at the Week of the Arctic highlighted these often neglected truths of Arctic health concerns.

Many speakers at the event shared personal experiences of watching their local landscape shift over a matter of decades. One presenter spoke of the “trickle down” effects of climate change on the people of his community, stressing the ramifications on all facets of their health, emotional, spiritual, and physical.

These sentiments were echoed by Shannon Erhart, the Executive Director of the Tanana Tribal Council, who discussed a range of issues from mental health to food security. She spoke of the cultural implications of these changes as well, poignantly stating, “We are losing our elders at a rapid rate – those who hold our traditional knowledge.” The simultaneous loss of knowledge from older generations combined with growing climactic stress has left younger generations ill-equipped to handle the multitude of issues that confront them.

To further complicate matters, the health concerns in the Arctic are as vast in scope as they are minute in detail. While it may seem surreal, the associated challenges of stray dogs in many remote Arctic communities are, in fact, a very real problem. Brian Berube and Tim Hunt of Alaska Native Rural Veterinary, Inc. shed light on the surplus of unwanted and unkempt dogs across rural Alaska and Northern Canada, and the alarming effect that the lack of animal control options has on community health: Northern Alaskan Children are hospitalized at double the rate of other U.S. children for dog bites; stray dogs that traipse through untreated, open sewage exacerbates sanitation issues; these animals carry a number of zoonotic illnesses, including rabies, parasites, and tick-borne diseases; the social and psychological effects associated with the presence of violent, stray dog packs are growing, as individuals fear for their safety while navigating their community.

While the Alaska Native Rural Veterinary, Inc. travels throughout these remote communities to provide as many spay and neuter services as possible, they recognize that their program is not sustainable. A permanent solution will require regular access to veterinary care in these rural regions.

The innumerable health concerns challenging the Arctic are not only apparent, but have already begun to alter the quality of life for Northern peoples. However, it’s not all gloom and doom. Arctic communities are vibrant, strong, and resilient. Many are coming together to share and exchange knowledge and ideas. Michael Brubaker of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium spoke of one such effort called the Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network. LEO operates as a network of local observers and topic experts who share knowledge about unusual animal, environmental, and weather-related events in their communities. This online platform allows individuals to build partnerships across the Arctic, while raising awareness and improving communication about climactic changes in the circumpolar north.

The One Health workshop of the Week of the Arctic 2017 grounded participants in the realities of present-day health concerns while providing next steps for collaborative, solutions-oriented approaches. Though it is hard for those of us living outside the Arctic context to understand the significance of obstacles that threaten the most fundamental aspects of daily life, personal connections through face-to face events like the Arctic Interchange are key in deepening international awareness of Northern challenges.

This publication is part of the blog series, “Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience: Arctic Council Ministerial Meetings 2017.” View the introductory article and the listing of the 14 blogs that make up this series.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.