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First Alaskapox death reported: What you should know about the virus

Health officials in Alaska reported the first known fatality from an uncommon virus known as Alaskapox. An elderly man who contracted the disease died in January, according to a bulletin from Alaska’s Department of Health released on February 9. The department notes that the man’s immune system was weakened due to cancer treatment, which likely contributed to the severity of the illness. 

Authorities are urging doctors across Alaska to be on the lookout for signs of the virus. Here is what we know about the virus.

Alaskapox was first discovered in an individual in Fairbanks, Alaska in July 2015 and six cases have been detected since. It is a type of orthopoxvirus that infects mammals and can spillover into humans and cause skin lesions. Other orthopoxviruses include the now-eradicated smallpox and mpox. Previously known as monkeypox, an mpox outbreak in 2022 and 2023 caused over 93,000 cases around the world.

Alaskapox generally affects small mammals including shrews and red-backed voles and rodents like red squirrels. More cases of this virus in humans coming to light does not necessarily mean that Alaskapox is becoming more prevalent.

“It’s very possible that this virus has been present in Alaska for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” state epidemiologist and chief of the Alaska Section of Epidemiology at the Alaska Department of Health Joe McLaughlin, told CNN. “What has changed is clinician awareness and the general public’s awareness that Alaskapox virus is something that’s a possibility. It’s possible that cases occurred prior to 2015 and were just subclinical or mildly clinical and just were not diagnosed.”

No human-to-human transmission has been documented to date, according to Alaska’s Department of Health.

“We are not sure exactly how the virus spreads from animals to people but contact with small mammals and potentially domestic pets who come into contact [with] small wild mammals could play a role,” the Division of Public Health wrote on its website.

Some orthopoxviruses can be passed through direct contact with skin lesions. Cats and dogs may also spread these types of viruses. The unnamed man who died in January told doctors he had been caring for a stray cat and that the cat often scratched him. While the cat tested negative, it could still have been carrying the virus on its claws from scratching rodents. Health officials still can’t say if this is exactly how the man contracted the virus. 

One or more skin lesions that appear rid like a spider or insect bite are usually the first symptom. Muscle and joint pain, swollen lymph nodes, and fever can also occur.  The Department of Health reported that nearly all had mild illnesses that resolved on their own after a few weeks. You can see what Alaskapox lesions look like here. 

Vanderbilt University Medical Center infectious disease specialist William Schaffner encouraged individuals experiencing these symptoms to seek medical attention. 

“Even if you haven’t been to Alaska and you have symptoms like that, you have to ask, could it be smallpox? That’s yet another reason to go to a medical care provider and get it looked at and diagnose it,” Schaffner told CBS News.

Healthcare providers may prescribe antiviral and immune-globulin treatments to help stop the disease’s progression. 

This most recent case was detected on the Kenai Peninsula, about 500 miles south of Fairbanks. This indicates that the virus may be more widespread than previously known. Currently, epidemiologists with Alaska’s Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the University of Alaska Museum, are testing small mammals for the virus. They are also urging physicians to familiarize themselves with the symptoms. 

The virus is also a threat to anyone outside of Alaska at this time. However, the CDC recommends that people everywhere maintain a safe distance from wildlife and thoroughly wash their hands after going outside. 

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