Gambell gets distemper outbreak under control
By Diana Haecker
The community of Gambell fought a distemper outbreak among its dog population this spring and managed to squash the epidemic in its early onset. Distemper is a deadly disease that can afflict dogs and wildlife alike and also has been documented in the North Atlantic to jump from dogs to marine mammals like seals, explains Dr. Bob Gerlach, the State Veterinarian.
Gambell mayor Joel James said that dogs started to get sick and by lucky coincidence the Alaska Native Rural Veterinarian group was in town for a regular spay and neuter clinic. They ended up helping to find out what caused the sickness and then rendered assistance to get the outbreak under control by starting a massive vaccination effort. Two volunteers in Gambell and the VPSO were trained to administer the vaccines, said Mayor James.
One of those volunteers is Chanelle Koonooka. “We had close to 20 dogs that got sick and died,” she said. “We didn’t know it was distemper.” Angie Fitch and a group of veterinarians and assistants with the Alaska Native Rural Veterinarian Inc. happened to be in Gambell for a spay and neuter clinic in February. “We discovered an unusual sickness, took samples, tested with a couple accredited labs and confirmed distemper,” Fitch said. “Then our medical director Dr. Tim Hunt consulted with Dr. Arleigh Reynolds and the State Veterinarian on how to proceed with the vaccinations.”
She said it was akin to a miracle to have been there just as the outbreak started and thus being able to diagnose it and nip it in the bud before the disease could ravage through the entire dog population in Gambell.
“The community was amazing,” she said. Dog owners began isolating their dogs and then proceeded to get their animals vaccinated. When Fitch and her assistants came back in March, they helped with a massive vaccination effort. Fitch estimates that about 130 dogs were vaccinated. Chanelle Koonooka said in a phone call with the Nugget that she just got done to administer 37 booster shots and is continuing the work of keeping dogs in the community vaccinated.
The state veterinarian Dr. Bob Gerlach with the Dept. of Environmental Conservation said that they worked with the local health corporation and the dog rescue group to get a handle on the outbreak. Gambell Mayor James said that there was a concern that the disease may jump to seals. “The virus can affect both pets and wildlife like foxes, other carnivores and may have a possible impact on seals,” Dr. Gerlach said. He said that this has not been proven to be the case here, but investigations are ongoing. Dr. Kim Beckman with the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game sent samples of the dogs diagnosed with distemper out to perform genetic tests that may yield a clue where this distemper virus originated. Results of that testing are not yet available, but Gerlach hopes that in a couple of months there will be some answers. Also, Dr. Gerlach said NOAA and the Ice Seal Committee was informed and there is an increased testing effort underway to look for the virus in seal samples.
Gerlach said symptoms of distemper are respiratory or gastrointestinal problems, brain inflammation causing the dogs to act very similar to a dog or animal with rabies: drooling, weird behavior and seizures. He said it’s a deadly disease with 50 percent of infected adult dogs and 80 percent of infected puppies dying from it. “There is no cure for it, you can only treat the symptoms,” he said. The virus is spread by saliva, urine and stools and can survive a long time in sub-freezing temperatures, but only a short time in warmer temperatures. However, he recommends a thorough cleaning of the area a dog with distemper was kept.
One to six weeks can go by from the time a dog is exposed to the virus until the disease manifests. During this time the dog can spread the virus to others.
The best way to curb the disease, Dr. Gerlach said, is by vaccinated one’s dogs. He added that this year saw outbreaks of rabies in foxes not only in Nome and Savoonga, but also in the YK Delta and the North Slope. Lay vaccinators are trained to administer rabies vaccines to dogs and pets for free, but distemper vaccines are not distributed by the state for free. This, Dr. Gerlach said, is in the hands of local animal rescue groups, animal control and nonprofits such as Angie Fitch’s Alaska Native Rural Veterinary Inc. to organize vaccination clinics. However, Gambell acted fast and, as a silver lining, has now trained personnel on the ground to continue the vaccination effort.
“We now have it under control,” said Koonooka.