Columns 2012

Time for veterinarians to step up to the plate

Providing services in Bush Alaska is always a challenge, whether because of distance, weather or remoteness. Most people living there know that they voluntarily exchange some of the modern world’s conveniences for the privilege of living a life most of their contemporaries find hard to comprehend.

But as times change and communications improve, the world that once only occasionally broke into these remote communities suddenly becomes omnipresent. Thanks to a blanketing layer of connectivity, even the most distant locations are part of today’s world. With this change comes the desire for some of the niceties that outside world offers, like health care and fresh vegetables.

When the Community Health Aide (CHA) program was first conceived in the fifties, it had a very limited scope – the TB epidemic. Eventually, the program was expanded and the village CHA became a critical provider of health care in remote villages.

More recently, the Native health care community took a look at the CHA program and thought it might provide the template for a program to help combat the horror that is dental health in Bush Alaska. So a dental health aide program was created that trained local residents to provide basic care and prevention in remote Native villages.

This program caused more than a little consternation amongst dental professionals in the state. Their claimed concern was the quality of care these paraprofessionals would provide and whether they might do more harm than good. Some outside the profession thought perhaps financial concerns were the dental association’s main focus, but I prefer to believe dentists truly were worried about the quality of care to be provided.

Since its inception, all indications are that the program is a success. It is improving dental care in small villages and seemingly not creating an entirely new set of oral health care problems due to incompetent care.

The newest concern for quality of life in Bush villages now seems to revolve around the care of animals. Dog care in specific is both an animal and a human problem since a dog with rabies is a threat to everyone in a village, and a pack of dogs can attack a person with the exact same ferocity that their ancestral wolves do. So dealing with animal health in a village or remote location is a reasonable thing to do.

The state veterinary association is concerned with proposals currently being made to send vets from outside the state into villages to provide this care. Like the dental association, they are focused on the quality of care animals will receive. According to comments I received after my last article on this topic, they are also worried about liability issues that would fall on their shoulders if something bad happened and a lawsuit resulted.

My response, of course, was to ask why the veterinary association was not working on some plan to provide care to these villages through its membership if they did not want outside vets coming in. Although I was assured this was being discussed, I have yet to see or hear anything indicating they have made any moves in that direction.

Enter the Alaska Rural Veterinary Outreach program. According to founding member Sally Clampitt, the purpose of ARVO is to get to Alaska’s remote villages and provide care, from spay/neuters to vaccinations, so that both the animal and human populations in those communities are healthier and safer. 

The ball seems to be back in the court of the Alaska State Veterinary Medical Association. Here’s a local organization dedicated to alleviating animal suffering in Bush Alaska. You would have us believe that this is a goal in which you too fervently believe. So can we expect to see you working closely with ARVO in the near future? Or will you more resemble the dental association in their dispute over dental health aides – an organization seemingly more dedicated to protecting its members’ financial interests than in promoting wellness.

My immense admiration for every vet who has ever taken care of one of my numerous avian and canine companions is no secret. I choose to believe these fine people will step up to the plate and help ease the suffering of animals in Bush Alaska while making those villages safer for all concerned.

I hope they don’t let me, or the animals, down.