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What to know about the rare Alaskapox virus after the first fatal case

An Alaska resident has died from complications from a relatively new and rare virus known as Alaskapox, according to a bulletin released by Alaska state public health officials.

The Alaskapox virus was first identified in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2015, according to the Alaska Department of Health. Since then, only seven cases have been reported in the state, according to the state health department.

This is the first case of Alaskapox infection resulting in hospitalization and death ever reported. State public health officials noted that the patient was an elderly man who was immunocompromised, putting him at higher risk for serious illness.

“Alaskapox remains rare,” Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist and chief of Alaska Public Health’s epidemiology division, told ABC News. “For the vast majority of people who may come into contact with this virus, the clinical course will likely be mild.”

The virus typically appears in small animals, typically identified in voles and shrews, according to the Alaska State Department of Health. No cases of human-to-human spread have been reported, according to the national health agency.

“There is no evidence so far (of) person-to-person transmission for the cases that have been identified,” said Julia Rogers, Ph.D., chief of outbreak intelligence at the Centers for Alaska Department of Alaska Disease Control and Prevention. Health, told ABC News.

“Given the rarity of Alaskapox and its generally benign course in healthy individuals, the risk to the general public remains low,” said John Brownstein, Ph.D., chief innovation officer at the Boston Children’s Hospital and ABC News medical contributor.

It is still unclear how the deceased resident became infected with the virus. They lived alone in a wooded area and reported caring for a stray cat, which later tested negative for the virus, according to the state bulletin released Friday.

“It could be that the cat was catching voles or shrews and eating them and then had a viable virus in its claws, and that was the route of (infection), through a scratch.” , McLaughlin said.

Over six weeks, the patient went to his doctor and local emergency rooms for an injury and was prescribed antibiotics, according to the bulletin. Eventually, as his situation deteriorated, he was hospitalized, where doctors sent tests to the CDC, according to state health officials, who ultimately identified the viral infection as Alaskapox. He succumbed to the virus a few weeks later, state health officials said.

“The most recent (fatal) case involved an elderly man who was immunocompromised, so his immune system was already not able to handle the infection,” Rogers said.

Alaska public health officials recommend that doctors familiarize themselves with the signs and symptoms of the virus and consider testing patients they suspect of having the disease.

What to look for

If patients develop lesions, they should avoid touching them and keep them dry and covered, while practicing good hand hygiene and avoiding sharing clothing and linens with others, according to the health department. of State.

Those who regularly come into contact with wildlife may need to take extra precautions, officials said.

“There are a lot of things you can catch from wild animals, and just try to take the best precautions you can and be safe and hygienically around them,” Rogers said.

Alaska public health officials hope that knowledge of the relatively new virus will make it easier to identify potential future cases.

“What we expect is that over time, as more and more clinicians become aware not only of the existence of Alaskapox virus, but also of what to look for and the way to test it, we will see more Alaskapox diagnoses. in the months and years to come,” McLaughlin said.

“The recent unfortunate death of an immunocompromised individual highlights the potential severity of Alaskapox in vulnerable populations, highlighting the critical need for increased awareness and diagnostic preparedness among health care providers,” said Brownstein.

“This case highlights the importance of monitoring wildlife diseases and their potential impact on human health, particularly as human activities increasingly encroach on natural habitats,” Brownstein added.

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