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From dental checkups to safety training, Coast Guard helps Arctic communities

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder

It may not be immediately apparent what dental fillings and rabies vaccines have to do with the Coast Guard. But in the agency's District 17 -- Alaska -- that's all part of the package.

This spring marked the fourth year of Arctic Shield, a Coast Guard outreach program that began as a crossroads into a safer, more efficient Coast Guard presence in Alaska's Arctic.

As the Coast Guard continued to access local knowledge to streamline their missions and needs, they were able to identify and provide services for various humanitarian needs among coastal communities.

"One of the first programs that we're working on up there is the Kids Don't Float program," said Coast Guard Lt. Jason Smiley.

That program provides loaner boards of life jackets near common water access areas. It also sends corpsmen into schools to teach kids water safety.

"(We) teach them about how to put a life jacket on, how to survive in the water, how to stay together, how to signal if you need help, things like that," Smiley said.

This year, Arctic Shield reached 27 different Arctic communities, bringing in water- and ice-safety training, awareness of fishing vessel safety regulations, as well as medical, dental and veterinary services.

An ice rescue team from District 9 -- the Great Lakes area -- traveled to Alaska to provide workshops in Barrow and Nome focusing on how to rescue yourself and others from dangerous situations on the ice.

In addition, 24 medical professionals -- including doctors, dentists and veterinarians -- visited villages in both the North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs to provide health care.

These efforts fit into the Coast Guard's goals to encourage the health and safety of the communities it serves, said Lt. Scot Guesno.

"The Coast Guard continues its long history of both learning and sharing knowledge and experience," Guesno said. This is "a neighborly, humanitarian aid that we provide,"

Efforts in the Arctic are somewhat enhanced because communities are geographically isolated, Guesno said. Arctic Shield gives village members access to a healthcare professional without having to travel to a hub city like Barrow or Kotzebue.

"By us getting up there we're really getting the vital medical and dental needs met," Guesno said.

Kimlea Medlin is the Dental Director for Simmonds Memorial Hospital in Barrow. Her department coordinated with Guesno to send several dentists and dental assistants -- trained corpsmen -- to Wainwright for 15 days of dental care. In that time the team was able to see 180 patients -- about a third of the village.

A survey done earlier this year showed 100 percent of the village children surveyed between kindergarten and third grade had tooth decay, Medlin said, truly highlighting the need for dental care and education.

She said the Coast Guard's contribution in the region helps her department to chip away the health care goals for their North Slope communities.

And the lifting of the financial burden can't be missed, she said.

"Not a single one of those (180) patients was billed," Medlin said. "It was an entirely humanitarian outreach. When we added up kind of the total of the treatment they provided, it would have been about $75,000."

Another aspect of this public health outreach is aimed at household critters.

"One of our big pushes was also our veterinary outreach," Guesno said. "We were able to go to six different villages in the North Slope Region."

This year they significantly increased the number of pets they were able to spay, neuter and vaccinate, Guesno said. On the North Slope, they worked with Borough veterinarian Sarah Coburn.

"They sponsored a public health service vet to come out to six of the seven villages with us," Coburn said. "It's always good for us to have extra support."

Rabies vaccinations are a significant public health concern in the Arctic, Coburn said, as well as treatment of dog bites, which go through her department as well.

They also try to prevent and vaccinate for those diseases and parasites that can be transferred between dogs and people, she said.

Guesno pointed out that the Arctic fox is a rabies carrier, and often responsible for spreading the disease in local dog populations.

This is the reason they traveled door-to-door in North Slope villages, and were able to vaccinate every dog they could contact, Guesno said.

Many of these Coast Guard outreach programs can be found in one form or another across Alaska. For example, the Kids Don't Float program now has 600 loaner life jacket boards around the state.

In the Arctic and elsewhere, outreach programs will continue to grow, Guesno said, supporting the health and safety of Alaska's people from the Gulf of Alaska to the Beaufort Sea.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder. Contact Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch@reportalaska.com.