Emerging Diseases Study

Principal Investigators Raphaela Stimmelmayr, Brian Person, NSB-DWM staff
Collaborators Veterinary student Greta Krafsur, Dr. Terry Spraker (Colorado State University); Gay Sheffield (AMAP, Univ. of Alaska); David S. Rotstein (Marine Mammal Pathology Services, Maryland), Grazieli Maboni and Susan Sanchez (Univ. of Georgia), more collaborators to be added as studies continue
Funding Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, ADFG, CSU


This long-term project is designed to proactively monitor infectious disease in multiple species, in multiple villages across the NPRA region of the North Slope, with special focus on zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transferred between animals and humans) of high public health significance to the residents of the NSB. Sampling of subsistence resources that are important to subsistence users is ongoing. It is important to monitor for new diseases in the area, and check for changes in frequency of existing diseases in the area. More baseline information still needs to be collected to assist with monitoring for climate and/or environmental changes and impacts from industrial development.

Emerging Diseases in Arctic Fox

Fox studies were carried out using carcasses originated from multi-year predator management efforts of Arctic fox culling conducted in May, June, and July within and near the Barrow Steller‚Äôs Eider Conservation Planning Area (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2002. Steller‚Äôs Eider Recovery Plan. Fairbanks, AK). The arctic fox is an important terrestrial and marine predator on the North Slope and an important subsistence species. No population estimate for the North Slope arctic fox population exists. Based on overall subsistence trapping efforts and success the local arctic fox population near Utqiagvik appears to be stable and sustainable. Apart from predation, subsistence trapping, and rabies infection being significant for the population, not much is known about the role of other disease factors. It is well known since the 1930‚Äôs that Arctic foxes are susceptible to canine distemper virus infection and sporadic die‚Äďoffs of Arctic foxes in Canada and Alaska have been reported. Canine distemper virus is a viral disease that occurs worldwide and affects mostly carnivores including dogs (***pet dogs are protected from getting the disease through their annual dog vaccines – distemper shots). This is the first study to report and characterize tissue findings in several arctic foxes naturally infected with canine distemper virus. The canine distemper virus recovered from the arctic foxes type differs from other types identified in other animals (including dogs) from different parts of the world. The origin of this unique Arctic strain of canine distemper virus discovered in the examined foxes remains unclear.


Emerging Diseases in Birds


Other Health Concerns and Information

Cyamids or Whale Lice

Kidney Worms in Bowhead Whales

Liver Fluke Disease in Ice Seals

Marine Algae Toxins or Harmful Algal Blooms




Fox/Dog Parasites –¬†Echinococcus¬†and¬†Taenia

The following information on parasites found in fox and domestic dogs is taken from a study done by graduate student Cassandra Kirk (UAF). Samples used in the study were collected locally.


  • ‚ÄúEchinococcus multilocularis¬†were found only in arctic fox collected in 1999 in Barrow near the DEW-line, landfill or gravel pit.¬†Taenia crassiceps¬†was detected in animals sampled in all three years, at all locations, including both arctic fox and sled dogs in Barrow.¬†Taenia polyacantha¬†was detected in one arctic fox in 1999. Only¬†T. crassiceps¬†was detected in sled dogs and although PCR products of expected size were generated from all 12 animals, sequences could not be resolved for 7 dogs sampled due to the presence of multiple peaks. Isolates of a given species of¬†parasite from individual arctic and red fox, as well as sled dogs were identical.‚ÄĚ
  • ¬†‚ÄúWe have unequivocally identified the species of¬†Echinococcus¬†present in arctic fox on the North Slope of Alaska as¬†E. multilocularis.¬†There is, however, little information available regarding the current ecology and transmission dynamics of¬†E. multilocularis¬†in the High Arctic. With anticipated changes in Arctic ecology due to climate change and increasing anthropogenic influences, prevalence of this zoonotic agent is likely to change. Because Echinococcus¬†infection poses a significant public health concern; understanding its ecology in the Arctic and monitoring its prevalence will be necessary to understand the human health consequences of ongoing and projected changes in the Arctic. We suggest that canids present the best sentinels for monitoring the impact of climate change on the ecology of¬†Echinococcus.‚ÄĚ
  • Kirk, Cassandra (2010). Molecular Ecology of¬†Echinococcus¬†and Taeniinae in Arctic Fox (Vulpes lagopus) of Northern Alaska: Characterization of the nad1 gene fragment of¬†Echinococcus multilocularis¬†and Taeniinae (Ph.D. Dissertation, Chapter 4). University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska.
  • This journal article documents the first identification of¬†Echinococcus¬†parasite found in lemmings in Barrow, Alaska: Holt, D.W.,¬†C. Hanns, T. O’Hara, K. Burek, and R. Frantz. 2005.¬†New distribution records of¬†Echinoccous¬†multilocularis¬†in the brown lemming from Barrow, Alaska, USA.¬†Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 41(1):257-259.
  • Find out more about the¬†Echinococcus¬†parasite and how to protect you and your pets here: ‚ÄúEchinococcus¬†in Alaska,‚ÄĚ State of Alaska Epidemiology Bulletin, February 2003. Go to¬†http://www.epi.alaska.gov/bulletins/docs/b2003_02.pdf.

Field Guides to Diseases and Parasites

Other Health Assessment Reports and Monitoring Projects

BP Exploration’s Long-Term Monitoring of Nearshore Beaufort Sea Fishes in the Prudhoe Bay Region

The long-term study monitors the distribution, abundance and health of regional fish stocks in the Prudhoe Bay region.

Alaska Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP)

  • 2002 Southcentral Alaska EMAP Survey: Summary Report¬†prepared by Susan Saupe, Douglas Dasher, and James Gendron. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) used EMAP protocols to conduct sampling surveys in order to estimate ecological conditions of coastal areas in Alaska, including water quality, prey species abundance, and contaminant measures in sediments and fish tissues. Future phases of the study plan to monitor and assess the coastal areas of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

Arctic Nearshore Impact Monitoring in the Development Area Program (ANIMIDA)

Avian Influenza Monitoring

Alaska Native Health Consortium (ANTHC) – Tribal health organization that manages Alaska Native health services.

Other Studies and Papers

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