By Emily Stearn, health journalist for Mailonline
12:33 February 13, 2024, updated 13:16 February 13, 2024
An elderly man has become the first patient on record to die from Alaskapox – the little-known cousin of smallpox.
Only seven cases of the infection have been reported since 2015, when it was first observed by scientists in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The newly registered victim from the state’s southern Kenai Peninsula was being treated at the hospital when she died in late January, authorities confirmed.
But what is Alaskapox? And can it spread between humans? Here, MailOnline details everything you need to know about the virus.
Is Alaskapox similar to smallpox?
Known as AKPV, Alaskapox belongs to the orthopoxvirus family.
Other members include cowpox, monkeypox, and smallpox, one of the deadliest diseases before its eradication.
The virus is thought to spread from small rodents such as voles and shrews to humans.
The Alaska Department of Health also warned that pets such as cats and dogs “may also play a role in the spread of the virus.”
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of Alaskapox include skin lesions, swollen lymph nodes, and joint and muscle pain – similar to the woes caused by monkeypox.
Many of the seven known cases initially thought they had suffered a spider or insect bite.
Alaska health officials recommend covering any skin lesions that develop and avoiding touching the wound.
The unidentified man who died first spotted a red bump under his armpit in September 2023 and was prescribed antibiotics after his emergency room visit.
But as his symptoms worsened, experiencing fatigue and pain in his armpits and shoulder, he was hospitalized in November.
Doctors noted that he had “four small pox-like lesions” in different parts of his body.
However, he suffered other complications which resulted in kidney failure and ultimately his death at the end of January.
Is it transmitted between humans?
Scientists don’t yet know for sure how the Alaskapox virus is spread, but say evidence suggests it is zoonotic, a disease that jumps from animals to humans.
No human-to-human transmission of AKVP has yet been documented.
But other viruses in the same family, including smallpox and monkeypox, have been shown to be transmitted through direct contact with infected people.
The unidentified man lived alone in a remote part of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and was believed to have become infected after being scratched by a stray cat, authorities said.
“It is likely that the virus is present more widely among small mammals in Alaska and that more infections in humans have occurred but have not been identified,” they added.
Samples taken from small mammals in 2020 and 2021 in Alaska’s Fairbanks North Star Borough — where the other six virus cases occurred — found traces of the Alaskapox virus in voles and red-backed shrews.
How deadly is it?
This is the first case of Alaskapox infection resulting in hospitalization and death ever reported.
However, authorities noted that the man was immunocompromised and undergoing treatment for cancer, putting him at higher risk of serious illness.
Doctors suggested this may have contributed to the severity of his illness and eventual death.
The other six patients had mild illnesses that resolved on their own after a few weeks.
What should patients do to prevent its spread?
State health officials advised those who develop lesions to avoid touching them and to keep them dry and covered with bandages.
Practicing good hand hygiene and avoiding sharing clothing and linens with others were among two other key recommendations.
People in regular contact with wildlife may also need to take extra precautions, officials said.
Is it confined to Alaska?
No cases have been reported outside of Alaska, suggesting the disease is confined to that state.
But the fatal case is the first to be reported in the state’s southern Kenai Peninsula, suggesting it has spread more widely in Alaska.
Mammals, too, are not respecting border restrictions, indicating they could spread into Canada.
As the man lived alone in a forest area and reported no recent travel or close contact with illness or similar travel, this also indicates that the virus is more widely distributed among animals than previously thought, added the scientists.
“More animal experiments are underway to better understand the distribution of the virus in animal populations across Alaska.”
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