Greenland authorities in race to vaccinate sled dogs ahead of major competition

An outbreak of illness and the approach of one of the nation's biggest sled dog races is adding urgency to an existing mandatory vaccine program.

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Sled dogs outside Sisimiut, Greenland. (Kevin McGwin)

A rash of outbreaks of dog illnesses, including the highly contagious virus distemper, has officials in northern Greenland moving swiftly to carry out a nationally mandated vaccination program in time to allow dogs to compete in one of the country’s largest dog-sled races.

Avannaata Qimussersua, a one-day, 40-kilometer race held this year in Ilulissat, does not take place until March 20. But, in order to make sure that dogs receive the vaccine in time to compete, municipal officials in Avannaata have this week been inoculating dogs in the 212,000-square-mile (550,000-square-kilometer) district on Greenland’s northwestern coast against distemper and parvovirus.

Both are incurable illnesses that are transmitted from dog-to-dog and have survival rates of less than 25 percent.

A booster shot will be administered at the end of February, when dogs will also be inoculated against rabies.

[In Greenland, a new national registry aims halt virus outbreaks in sled dogs]

As many as 50 teams of dogs compete in Avannaata Qimussersua each year. In order to be allowed to participate this year, mushers will be required to provide proof their dogs have completed the vaccination program.

Local officials are also using the campaign to ensure that all dogs have received the required vaccinations, which are provided for free to sled dogs.

Northern Greenland has been hit by sporadic outbreaks of dog illnesses in recent years, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of dogs. The most recent was in early January, in the settlement of Siorapaluk. An outbreak in July required at least 20 dogs to be put down.

Although last year’s Avannaata Qimussersua was not affected by dog illnesses, race organizers in 2016 barred dogs from the Ilulissat area from taking part due to a distemper outbreak there in the weeks prior.

Officials in Avannaata, which encompasses four towns and 23 settlements, admit they have had trouble meeting the vaccination requirements, but hope the pre-race inoculations, as well as the hiring of a dog inspector, will ensure compliance by the end of the year.

“It’s a big responsibility, and we need to work in a coordinated, methodical way if we are to succeed,” said mayor Palle Jerimiassen. “The local council agrees about the importance of protecting sled dogs, given their importance to our culture in Avannaata.”