Alaska faces unique challenges for bio-preparedness

The remoteness of isolated Alaskan villages provides some protection from outbreaks, but creates other health challenges as well.
The remoteness of isolated Alaskan villages provides some protection from outbreaks, but creates other health challenges as well. | Cecil Sanders / Flickr

The Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, under the direction John Madden, handles emergency management in the largest and northernmost state in the union.

Jeremy Zidek, who serves as the public information officer for the division, said that the agency coordinates emergency management with several state entities. The state’s Department of Health and Social Services would take the lead in any type of biological threat. The Division of Forestry handles wildfires. The Division of Environmental Conservation deals with hazardous materials.

“We would activate our partners in the National Guard and other state agencies,” Zidek said. “We’re kind of a little bit more experienced and deal with emergency response issues on a regular basis. So we work very closely with (the Department of) Health. We would stand up our EOC in support of theirs or staff their Emergency Operations Center and use all the resources we have to perhaps move people (and) equipment and support those folks while they’re out in the field.”

Emergency responders in Alaska have been put to the test before with multiple emergencies happening simultaneously. The ability to direct equipment and personnel to varyious locations over great distances was necessary very recently.

“During H1N1 (the “Swine Flu” scare) we also had river flooding,” Zidek said. “We had a volcanic eruption and we had wildfires going at the same time. We call it ‘Flood, Fire and Flu Spring.’ That was back in 2009. We established a unified command with the Department of Health and Social Services. As they needed the vaccine and stuff like that moved out, we were able to call upon the resources that we have and contracts that we have to move things around the state and accomplish that mission.”

Emergency management in Alaska comes with challenges that do not exist in most places in America. Alaska is a state with a high Native American population that is spread out over vast areas and requires special assets. In the more urban parts of Alaska, along what Zidek said is the “rail belt,” residents have access to medical care to the standards that one would expect anywhere else in the country.

“In Alaska, one of our strengths, and one of our weaknesses, is that we have very remote communities,” Zidek said. Many of them are only accessible by boat or air, he said. “In remote communities, if someone doesn’t bring a disease to that community, they’re fairly well insulated. We have that barrier where people aren’t inter-mixing and there’s large geographic distances between the communities. On the negative side, if there is disease within a community, that can spread quite rapidly because people live in small homes and they are in small quarters.”

Zidek said that in some communities sanitation may not be up to modern standards and many families still carry their water by bucket, as well as removing sewage the same way. Due to these conditions among mostly native peoples, the state’s health department already routinely serves medical needs in isolated areas year-round.