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A man died from Alaskapox last month. Here's what we know about the virus

Last month, a man living on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula died of Alaskapox. Pictured is Bear Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park on Sept. 1, 2015, in Seward, Alaska.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
Last month, a man living on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula died of Alaskapox. Pictured is Bear Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park on Sept. 1, 2015, in Seward, Alaska.

Alaska health officials reported last week that a man died in January after contracting a virus known as Alaskapox.

The disease was first discovered in a person living near Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2015, and there have been several known infections since then.

But officials believe that last month's case is the first fatality from the newly discovered virus — as well as the first known case outside the state's interior — and authorities are now urging doctors across the state to be on the lookout for signs of the disease.

Still, authorities note that immunocompromised people may be at a higher risk for severe illness from the virus, and so far the only known cases of Alaskapox have been detected within the state.

What is Alaskapox?

Alaskapox is a type of orthopoxvirus that infects mammals, including humans, and causes skin lesions. Other orthopoxviruses include the now-eradicated smallpox virus as well as mpox, which was previously known as monkeypox and experienced an outbreak of thousands of cases worldwide in 2022.

"Orthopoxviruses are zoonotic viruses, meaning that they circulate primarily within animal populations with spill over into humans occasionally," said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist Julia Rogers, as reported by Alaska Public Media.

Alaska's Division of Public Health says the virus has been found primarily in small animals in the Fairbanks area, such as shrews and red-backed voles.

Patients typically have one or more skin lesions and can also develop swollen lymph nodes and joint or muscle pain.

What do we know about the reported Alaskapox cases?

There have been seven known infections in Alaska since 2015, including last month's fatality. Six of the infections were detected in the Fairbanks area, while the man who died last month was from a forested area of the Kenai Peninsula.

The patient who was hospitalized and later died was an "elderly man" who lived alone and was immunocompromised from cancer treatment, which "likely contributed" to the severity of his illness, officials say.

The man also told health officials that he gardened in his backyard and took care of a stray cat, which hunted small animals nearby and would frequently scratch him. The cat tested negative for orthopoxvirus.

Officials believe there have been more cases of Alaskapox in humans that weren't caught.

Rogers, the epidemiologist, said she expects Alaskapox infections to remain rare.

Most patients who had documented cases of Alaskapox suffered mild illnesses that cleared up on their own after a few weeks.

Can I get Alaskapox from another person?

It's unclear.

To date, no human-to-human transmission has been documented, Alaska's Department of Health says.

It also notes that some orthopoxviruses can be passed on via contact with skin lesions.

Pet cats and dogs may also spread the virus.

"We are not sure exactly how the virus spreads from animals to people but contact with small mammals and potentially domestic pets who come into contact [with] small wild mammals could play a role," the Division of Public Health says on its website.

Health officials encourage people with lesions potentially caused by Alaskapox to keep them covered with a bandage.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people keep a safe distance from wildlife and wash their hands after being outside.

What's being done to respond to the Alaskapox cases?

The first six cases of Alaskapox were discovered in the Fairbanks area, but the more recent case occurred in the Kenai Peninsula, indicating that the virus is more geographically widespread in the state than previously known.

The Alaska Section of Epidemiology, along with the CDC and the University of Alaska Museum, are working outside the state's interior region to test small mammals for the virus.

State health officials are also urging Alaska doctors to familiarize themselves with the symptoms of Alaskapox and report any suspected cases to the Section of Epidemiology.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.