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AAAS Arctic Division to Join Northern Nations at International Congress on Circumpolar Health

The AAAS Arctic Division will hold its 2012 annual meeting jointly with the 15th triennial International Congress on Circumpolar Health, where representatives of nine Arctic nations and other interested participants will gather to discuss the science and policy related to a broad range of health issues that affect people who live in the Far North.

When the Congress convenes in Fairbanks from 5-10 August, participants will explore complex and often inter-related issues, ranging from nutrition, obesity, and food security to the impact of climate change on human health, the high incidence of suicide, and public engagement in research. Many of the presentations will include a strong focus on issues of particular concern to indigenous communities throughout the Arctic.

“Our health issues are similar across the Arctic—nutrition, obesity, diabetes, and cardiopulmonary disease,” said Lawrence K. Duffy, a chemistry and biology professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and executive director of the AAAS Arctic Division. “But there’s a different context for people living in extreme conditions of temperature and light. How you approach these things is different.”

“An important part of this congress is the opportunity for networking across the northern regions,” said Rhonda M. Johnson, president of American Society of Circumpolar Health, which is hosting the meeting. “It’s quite possible that a person who is a physician in Greenland has more in common with a community caregiver or nurse’s aide in Alaska or Canada than they would with a health provider working outside the Arctic.”

“It’s an opportunity to get together with people who live in a similar community and often share similar challenges and think about what we know about the community and what kinds of innovative solutions are out there that could be tailored or adapted for use in other places.”

An estimated 500-600 people are expected to attend the 15th International Congress on Circumpolar Health—not only scientists and doctors, but policymakers, the leaders of indigenous communities, educators, and students. Representatives are expected from Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States, and from the World Health Organization. The event is sponsored by the International Union on Circumpolar Health (IUCH).

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Alaska Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell are also scheduled to be there, and U.S. Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and U.S. Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) are expected to offer remarks by video.

This year’s theme is “Circumpolar Health Comes Full Circle,” a reference to the first congress held in Fairbanks in 1967. Certainly, however, much has changed in that time.

A land that was once largely pristine and fairly isolated is increasingly threatened by local environmental damage and the arrival of toxic substances that ride air currents from lands far to the south. Climate change is disrupting wildlife migration patterns and the water cycle, even the way ice forms and when it melts. The old ways of living off of the land are in retreat; as processed foods and urban life have advanced, so have “civilization diseases.” Where infectious diseases and tuberculosis are now well in check, obesity and diabetes are surging. So, too, are behavioral health issues such as suicide and substance abuse.

One of the first keynote speeches will be delivered by Kue Young, an author, expert on the health of indigenous people in the Arctic, and founder of the International Network for Circumpolar Health Research. He’ll speak on the topic “Circumpolar Health-What’s Next?”

Among the other keynote speakers will be:

  • Linda Chamberlain, a scientist, author, dog musher, and founder of the Alaska Family Violence Prevention Project, will address the topic: “Children Exposed to Domestic Violence: Implications and Opportunities for Circumpolar Health.” Chamberlain holds faculty appointments at the University of Alaska and Johns Hopkins University.
  • Mads Melbye, executive vice president of the Statens Serum Institut, a major Danish health research center, will speak on “When an Entire Country is a Cohort Study.” Melbye also serves as associate editor of Journal of the National Cancer Institute and in several committee and advisory positions for governments and national and international research organizations.
  • Cyndi Nation, a Koyukon Athabascan leader, who serves as the community health outreach program director for the Tanana Chiefs Conference. She will speak on “Wellness Teams: A Community Approach to Suicide Prevention,” and present the film “Huslia Wellness.” The Tanana Chiefs Conference is a non-profit organization serving 42 communities in Alaska’s interior.
  • Fran Ulmer, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, will speak on “Arctic Research: How Does Health Fit In?” Ulmer is the former chancellor of the University of Alaska-Anchorage; and
  • Laura Arbour, a professor in the Department of Medical Genetics at the University of British Columbia, will speak on “Developing Healthy Communities: Understanding the Determinants of Early Inuit Health in Nunavut.” Her research integrates maternal child health issues and the understanding of the genetic component to aboriginal health at all ages.

The AAAS Arctic Division has long been influential in the field of Arctic health, and many of its past annual meetings have had a significant component focused on those issues. But this is the first time the division’s meeting has been held jointly with the International Congress on Circumpolar Health.

The division will not have a separate agenda, but a number of active members will be making presentations at the Congress.

Duffy and Arctic Division President Sven Ebbesson will moderate a panel, “Diet, Nutrition and Health: Cardiovascular and Diabetes Research in the North.” Duffy will also moderate panels on chronic diseases and appear on a panel to present research on sled dogs as indicators of climate change and the resulting transport of toxic contaminants along the Yukon River. Ebbesson will be featured on one of the chronic disease panels, speaking on a study—Genetics of Coronary Artery Disease in Alaska Natives—and the insights it offers on the association of saturated fatty acids with cardiovascular disease.

Former AAAS Arctic Division President Craig Gerlach will moderate a panel, “Food Security: Problems and Solutions.” Gerlach and Philip Loring, an ecologist and food systems scholar at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, will speak on “Rebuilding Northern Foodsheds: Sustainable Food Systems, Community Well-Being and Food Security.”

Changing cultures and a changing climate make food security an issue of critical importance in the North, said Johnson, chair of Department of Health Sciences and a professor of public health at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“It’s not just potential malnutrition like you might typically see in a place with limited resources and infrastructure,” she said. “If people lead a traditional subsistence lifestyle, will they still have access to those foods? And will those foods still be healthy?”

The issue of contaminants is particularly important for people who live close to the land, she added. And as the cash economy becomes more prevalent, that also can drive changes in food consumption patterns that affect health.

Such issues are inevitably multi-disciplinary, Johnson said, and they occur with some variations in all of the Arctic nations.

Today there is a “growing recognition of the need to have these very diverse partnerships to study and work on circumpolar health,” she said. “Over time, as people have experienced changing cultural and social norms, the recognition of the important role of indigenous perspective and participatory research has really gained ground.”

“Now there’s a recognition that the kinds of studies needed to produce positive change in health will require more time and more partners and more engagement.”

Founded in 1951, the AAAS Arctic Division fosters communication between researchers working on the Arctic, Alaskan, Canadian, northern, or Antarctic issues, including climate, environmental change, natural resources, telecommunications, and northern people and cultures. Most of the division’s members live in the North, but anyone who is a member of AAAS can join.

AAAS has three other regional divisions: the Pacific, with a charter dating to 1914; the Southwest and Rocky Mountain Division, founded in 1920; and the Caribbean, founded in 1985. All AAAS members in good standing, and who reside or work within the specified boundaries of a regional division, are automatically included as members of that division.


Learn more about the program and how to register for the International Congress on Circumpolar Health, scheduled for 5-10 August in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Learn more about the AAAS Arctic Division and the three other AAAS regional divisions.

Learn more about the International Union of Circumpolar Health.