A person in Alaska has died after falling sick with a rare virus known as Alaskapox. The fatal case was an elderly man with a weakened immune system who lived in the Kenai Peninsula of Southcentral Alaska.
According to a bulletin from the Alaska Department of Health, he first sought medical attention in mid-September 2023 after noticing a tender red papule under his right arm. Over the next 6 weeks, he visited the emergency department several times for clinical evaluation of the lesion and was prescribed multiple antibiotics, but his condition worsened.
After continuing to experience fatigue and increased pain in his shoulder, he was hospitalized in Anchorage on November 17. While trying to diagnose the mystery illness, a lesion swab was submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which found he was infected with the Alaskapox virus (AKPV).
The immunocompromised patient died of complications from the infection in late January 2024.
Some clues may indicate how the man became infected with Alaskapox. The man lived alone in a forested area, reported no recent travel, and had no close contacts with recent travel, illness, or similar lesions.
Research by the CDC has indicated that AKPV is present in at least four different species of small mammals that live in the state, including shrews and red-backed voles.
Before his death, he reported caring for a stray cat at his residence that regularly hunted small mammals. He also said the cat frequently scratched him, including one notable scratch near his right shoulder just a month before his rash emerged.
What is Alaskapox?
Alaskapox is a virus that was first documented in 2015 in a woman who lived near Fairbanks in Alaska, US. It’s part of the Orthopoxvirus genus, which includes several species of viruses that can cause other diseases in humans such as smallpox, cowpox, horsepox, camelpox, and mpox.
Prior to this latest fatal case, six AKPV infections had been reported to the Alaska Section of Epidemiology, as of December 2023. All of these reported infections occurred in residents of the Fairbanks area, which is a considerable distance from the Kenai Peninsula.
Fortunately, all cases managed to full recovery. The symptoms of their self-limiting illness involved a localized skin rash and swollen lymph nodes.
Symptoms of Alaskapox
Typical symptoms of Alaskapox include a skin lesion, as well as swollen lymph nodes and joint or muscle pain, according to the State of Alaska. They added that people with the infection often mistake the skin lesion for a bug bite.
Can people with Alaskapox infect other people?
As it stands, there is currently no evidence that the Alaskapox virus can spread from person to person.
Alaskapox virus primarily occurs in small mammals. While health authorities are not totally sure how the virus spreads from animals to people, it is evident that many people with the infection have contact with small mammals or natural environments where wild animals might live.
What should I do if I think I have Alaskapox?
If you suspect you might have an Alaskapox infection, you should take care to keep the lesion covered and avoid touching it. People should also seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Healthcare providers are advised to contact the Alaska Section of Epidemiology at 907-269-8000 and take photos of the lesion.
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