Federal bill would add veterinary care to IHS duties to address rabies, other risks in rural Alaska

a fox in a field
A young Arctic fox sits on a hillside of tundra plants outside its den in Northern Alaska on July 9, 2021. Rabies in Alaska and other parts of the far north is endemic in Arctic fox populations, but regular veterinarian service to protect pet dogs and people is scarce. (Photo by Lisa Hupp/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Indian Health Service provides medical and dental care to the Indigenous peoples of Alaska and elsewhere in the nation. What it does not provide, however, is veterinary care for animals living with the IHS’ human clients.

bill introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is an attempt to change that.

The bill, called the Veterinary Services to Improve Public Health in Rural Communities Act, was introduced by the Alaska senator last week. It would add veterinary services to the federal agency’s duties. That is important in rural Alaska, she said, where regular veterinarian care is notoriously scarce and where diseases in wild animal populations pose threats to domestic animals like dogs and, potentially, people.

The bill would direct the IHS to work with tribal organizations to provide veterinarian services, including spaying and neutering of pets.

A top concern is rabies, which is common in Alaska fox populations but also found in other animals and thus poses risks to people.

“Unfortunately, in Alaska we are experiencing more frequent rabies outbreaks in wild animal populations. Rural communities are disproportionately at higher risk of rabies transmission to humans due to uncontrolled dog populations in remote areas of Alaska — which is particularly concerning given the challenges of providing health care in many rural and remote villages,” Murkowski said in a statement. There are vaccination and voluntary veterinary services trying to address the problems, but those “are simply not able to meet the growing need for services. My bill would help bolster the veterinary workforce in Alaska, creating healthier and safer communities across the state,” she said.

Alaska Native children, research shows, are at elevated risks for dog bites, which could, in turn, expose them to rabies or other diseases that can spread between animals and people, also known as zoonotic diseases. A 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Alaska Native children’s rate of hospitalization for dog bites was about twice that of the general U.S. child population. Indigenous children in the Southwestern and Northern Plains states also had high rates of hospitalization for dog bites, the study found.

Dog bites and exposure through them to rabies and other diseases is a problem in Indigenous communities throughout the circumpolar north, and “dog bites have become an important  public health burden” in those places, said a 2022 report by Canadian researchers that synthesized 257 individual studies.

Rabies is endemic, meaning entrenched, in the Arctic fox and red fox populations of northern Alaska, Western Alaska and the Aleutians, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But rabies has been found in other wild animals, such as caribou and polar bears, according to the department.

Last summer, North America’s first confirmed case of a rabies-infected moose occurred in the Bering Strait-area village of Teller. The moose, found wandering in and around the community, was euthanized and found to be carrying the Arctic fox variant of the rabies virus, which is different from the red fox variant, the Department of Fish and Game said.

Among the provisions in Murkowski’s bill is a directive for the veterinary officers from the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps to provide services to the IHS, a directive for a study about the feasibility of delivering oral rabies vaccines in Alaska’s Arctic region and inclusion of the IHS as a coordinating agency in the National One Health Framework, which is addressing zoonotic diseases and federal agencies’ readiness to respond to them.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

Previous articleEaglecrest Ski Area general manager resigns at board’s request
Next articleAlaska lawmakers pass child care legislation to buoy sector ‘in crisis’