Public health in Alaska: some thoughts

Greetings, MCH readers!

Laura Andersen here, a master’s student at the University of Minnesota’s Maternal and Child Health program. I’m writing you from Alaska, where I am currently about halfway through one of the most interesting internships I’ve ever held – at the State of Alaska’s Section of Women’s, Children’s, and Family Health.

Alaska is incredibly beautiful and diverse, both in terms of its people and its geography. Folks in Juneau will tell you that Anchorage is “30 miles from Alaska,” but coming from the Midwest, it feels wild and remote. The Cook Inlet runs along the city’s eastern side, and to the west, the Chugach Mountains loom. Locals fish for salmon downtown, and moose and bears are routinely seen in neighborhood alleys.

At the same time, the city is the largest in Alaska, boasting more than 40% of the state’s total population. Health disparities are more sharply defined by the state’s challenging geography: public health practitioners here struggle to provide equal access to health care programs across the state’s 591,004 square miles and within the 75% of Alaskan communities still unconnected by roads.

Alaska, furthermore, has substantial health issues (both environmental and social) to contend with.  One of the more pressing environmental health issues right now is the debate over Pebble Mine, a proposed exploratory mine along Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska — its opponents argue that the  mine will radically harm the area’s water, wildlife, and health of surrounding communities.  Rates of preventable illness, such as diabetes and hypertension, continue to rise in both urban and rural areas, while complex social ills—intimate partner violence, suicide, and substance abuse, are regularly cited as “epidemic” in proportion.

Last week I sat in on a meeting of the Legislative Health Caucus downtown. They are currently putting together their 2010 Well-Being report, which includes a substantial list of health concerns and requests for state and federal funding. Health advocates here must work closely in order to coordinate services, and with a gubernatorial race just around the corner, many agencies are busy pushing hard for their programs. With two ongoing field projects, I’m pushing hard, too — and looking forward to a little more travel before I head back to the lower 48.

To learn more about Alaska health, visit the Department of Health and Human Services online, at

To learn more about Alaska culture, I highly recommend the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News, at

To learn about about internships with HRSA’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau, click here: