Alaska health officials have identified the first known death linked to a newly discovered virus called Alaskapox.
Since its discovery in 2015, seven Alaskapox infections have been reported, according to the state Department of Health. The most recent case was identified in an elderly man who died last month.
“This is the first case of serious Alaskapox infection resulting in hospitalization and death,” the Ministry of Health said in a statement last week.
The man had a weakened immune system due to cancer treatment, which likely contributed to the severity of his illness, officials noted.
Experts say the disease is often mild and infections remain rare in humans because the virus is found primarily in Alaska’s small mammal populations.
“Six of the seven cases were mild and self-limiting, so the patient did not even require supportive care from a health care provider,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist and chief of the Alaska Epidemiology Section of the Alaska Department of Health. .
Still, there’s a lot we don’t know about the virus, McLaughlin said, including how it spreads from animals to humans and how long it’s been around.
Alaskapox was only recently discovered, but McLaughlin says the virus is endemic in small mammal populations in Alaska, regularly infecting voles and red-backed shrews as well as other rodents such as red squirrels.
The virus belongs to the orthopoxvirus genus, which also includes better-known viruses such as smallpox and mpox which often infect mammals and cause skin lesions.
McLaughlin notes that Alaskapox is an “old world” virus, typically found in Africa, Asia and Europe.
“It’s very possible that this virus has been present in Alaska for hundreds, if not thousands of years,” he said.
However, the increase in the number of revealed Alaskapox cases does not mean the virus has become more prevalent in the state’s small mammal population in recent years.
“What has changed is awareness among clinicians and the general public that Alaskapox virus is a possibility,” McLaughlin said. “It is possible that cases occurred before 2015 that were simply subclinical or mildly clinical and simply went undiagnosed.”
Although it’s unclear how long the virus has been circulating in the state, infections follow contact with animals, according to Dr. Julia Rogers, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Epidemic Intelligence Service. United States Prevention assigned to the Alaska Department of Health. .
“These individuals acquired it through contact with an animal,” she said.
The first case of Alaskapox was discovered in July 2015 in a woman living near Fairbanks in central Alaska, according to the state health department. Since then, five additional cases have been reported in the Fairbanks area.
The most recent case — which resulted in the first known death from Alaskapox — is also the first discovered outside of Fairbanks. It was reported about 500 miles south on the Kenai Peninsula, authorities said.
This indicates that Alaskapox is more geographically widespread than previously thought.
“We were able to sequence the virus from this patient’s case, and that showed that there was a distinction between this case and the clusters of cases that we were able to sequence in Fairbanks,” Rogers said.
However, she adds that the recent finding is likely due to geographic distinctions in the virus and is not the result of a virus “transported from the Fairbanks area.”
None of the seven people diagnosed with Alaskapox had recently traveled out of the state or country, and no cases have been identified outside of Alaska, experts say.
Further sampling of affected animal populations is needed to fully understand how the virus spreads from animals to humans, Rogers says, but contact with small mammals and pets that encounter them could play a role.
Health officials say the man who died lived in a heavily wooded area and was caring for a stray cat that preyed on small mammals.
“The stray cat would come into the house from time to time and play with the cat and the cat would scratch him frequently,” McLaughlin said.
The Alaska Department of Health says the cat’s scratches are a “possible source” of infection in this case.
“This also follows patterns of evidence for other Old World orthopoxviruses,” McLaughlin added. “A traumatic event typically introduces infection from a pet to a human.”
Alaskapox Symptoms and Treatment
Aside from the latest case, all Alaskapox patients had mild illness that resolved on its own after a few weeks, according to the state Department of Health.
Symptoms usually include one or more skin lesions that at first look like a spider bite, McLaughlin says. Swollen lymph nodes, muscle pain, and fever may also occur.
“If there is a series of symptoms or individual symptoms that meet this type of case definition and you have no other known cause or there is no known disease that contributes to these symptoms, then you should definitely see your health care provider, and they can do additional evaluation and testing,” Rogers said.
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People with weakened immune systems may experience more severe symptoms, health officials note. The man who died from Alaskapox suffered from slow wound healing, malnutrition, acute kidney failure and respiratory failure.
Antiviral and immunoglobulin treatments may be prescribed, says McLaughlin.
Experts note that although some orthopoxviruses can spread between people through direct contact with skin lesions, there is no evidence that a person with Alaskapox can pass it to someone else.
“People outside of Alaska don’t need to worry,” McLaughlin said. “Those who live in Alaska just need to be aware that this is an infection they can get.”
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