ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — An elderly man has died of Alaskapox, the first known death from the newly discovered virus, state health officials said.
The man, who lived on the remote Kenai Peninsula, was hospitalized last November and died in late January, according to a bulletin released last week by Alaska public health officials.
The man was undergoing treatment for cancer and his immune system was weakened by the medications, which may have contributed to the severity of his illness, according to the bulletin. He describes him as elderly but does not specify his age.
Alaskapox, also known as AKPV, is linked to smallpox, cowpox and mpox, health officials said. Symptoms may include a rash, swollen lymph nodes, and joint or muscle pain.
Only six other cases of the virus have been reported to Alaska health officials since the first in 2015. All those involved lived in the Fairbanks area, more than 300 miles from the Kenai Peninsula, health officials said.
All had mild cases and recovered without requiring hospitalization.
The deceased man “resided alone in a wooded area and reported no recent travel or close contact with recent travel, illness or similar injuries,” the health bulletin states.
It’s unclear how exactly AKPV is transmitted, but researchers say it could be zoonotic, meaning it can jump from animals to humans. The bulletin said testing revealed evidence of current or previous infection in several species of small mammals in the Fairbanks area, including red-backed voles and at least one domestic animal.
The man said he had been caring for a stray cat in his home, according to the bulletin.
The cat tested negative for the virus but “regularly chased small mammals and frequently scratched the patient,” the bulletin said.
This opens the possibility that the cat had the virus on its claws when it scratched it. The bulletin noted a “notable” scratch near the armpit area where the first symptom – a red lesion – was noted.
Health officials said there have been no documented cases of the virus being transmitted to humans, but they recommended that people with skin lesions likely caused by Alaskapox cover the affected area with a bandage.
Other suggestions include washing your hands thoroughly, avoiding sharing clothing that may have touched the lesions, and washing clothes and linens separately from other household items.
Health officials also urged Alaskans to follow federal health precautions when around wildlife to avoid possible Alaskapox infections.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing hands with soap and water after contacting wild animals or their feces. Hunters should always wear gloves when handling dead animals, even if they have just been killed, the agency suggests.
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