Mushing for health. That's what two area mushers are doing during this year's Iditarod sled dog race by joining the "I Did It By Two!" child immunization campaign.
This year is the 75th anniversary of the original race on the Iditarod trail, where Leonhard Seppala and 20 other mushers fought time and the elements to bring diphtheria serum to an afflicted Nome. While all the mushers in the race this year will wear a special bib commemorating the serum run, four will carry that spirit to another level. They are three-time champion Martin Buser, 1975 champion Emmitt Peters, and two Kasilof mushers, Jon Little and Paul Gebhardt.
"Well, I'm in pretty good company," said Little, a second-year Iditarod competitor.
Kelly Keeter, education coordinator for the state immunization program said the I Did It By Two! program was started around 1990 by the Alaska Nurses Association and taken over by the state in 1997.
"It's a year-round campaign that uses the Iditarod to raise public awareness about childhood immunization," she said. "Martin has been our ever faithful spokesman. He's attended our meetings, talked to kids in schools during the nonmushing season, and he's on the campaign board. He's kind of been the face of the campaign."
Buser had been the campaign spokesperson for years, but Keeter said the group wanted to recruit more mushers this year.
"We asked our local public health nurses in areas with mushers to look for candidates," Keeter said.
Enter Kenai public health nurse Mary Jane Hanley, who recruited Little and Gebhardt.
"The Kenai public health nurse contacted us, and we were very enthusiastic," Evy Gebhardt, Paul's wife, said. "In fact, I just made a presentation to a preschool about immunization."
As for Little, he said he wanted to participate to help pay back the community for its support of him.
"I figured that since I've been asking people to help me out, it would balance if I help others out," Little said. "It makes me feel less guilty."
Little said he is working with the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, as well.
Keeter said the campaign's catch-phrase, "I did it by two," refers to having all childhood immunizations done by age 2.
"Up to that age is the time children are most vulnerable to vaccine-preventable childhood diseases," she said. "That's when they need the vaccinations the most."
Keeter said some of the 11 childhood diseases preventable by immunization include diphtheria, chicken pox, whooping cough and tetanus.
"Shots are required at birth or 1 month, 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, between 12 and 18 months, and again at 2 years," she said. "We really want parents to bring their kids in on time."
Evy Gebhardt said she and her husband often make visits to area schools and host tours of their dog yard, always stressing immunization.
"Whenever people visit our kennel, immunization is something we talk about," she said. "We tell them that our dogs are probably better immunized than many children in the U.S. And we keep good records, which unfortunately, some parents don't."
"If my dogs have to have vaccinations at least once a year, kids should, too. They're more important," he said.
As part of the program, the mushers agree to mention the I Did It By Two! campaign during interviews and will wear special buttons during the ceremonial start between Anchorage and Eagle River, as well as distribute campaign stickers.
"Paul will have a few stickers on the trail, but he will have more before and after the race," Gebhardt said.
"We try not to ask them to do anything on the trail because their minds are pretty focused on the race," Keeter said.
Gebhardt said her husband gets a lot of mail and e-mail from Iditarod fans, many of them children from around the country, and that he always takes the opportunity to remind them to get immunized when he writes back.
"The kids tell us their life's story, about all their brothers and sisters, and so Paul tells them they all need immunization," Gebhardt said.
Keeter said all the mushers are participating in the program for free.
"It's out of the goodness of their hearts," she said. "We don't have a budget to pay them anything or for advertising."
Keeter said the Vaccinate Alaska Program, which oversees I Did It By Two!, is in the process of seeking nonprofit status, and Keeter said that would give them a chance to raise money.
"We're planning incentive events for mushers next year and hope to raise funds to give them a little monetary incentive."
Until then, look for Gebhardt, Little, Peters and Buser to be spreading the message about stopping the spread of childhood diseases.
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