Alaskapox: What to know about the virus that has killed an elderly man

The man, who had a weakened immune system due to being treated for cancer, died last month. He was described as “elderly,” by the state’s Department of Health.

Health officials in Alaska have announced the first known death linked to a newly discovered virus called Alaskapox.

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The man, who had a weakened immune system due to being treated for cancer, died last month. He was described as “elderly,” by the state’s Department of Health.

Since its discovery in 2015, seven Alaskapox infections have been reported, according to the state Department of Health. The most recent case was identified in an elderly man who died last month.

“This is the first case of severe Alaskapox infection resulting in hospitalization and death,” the health department said in a release last week.

Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist and chief of the Alaska Section of Epidemiology at the Alaska Department of Health, told CNN that the illness, first discovered in 2015, is often mild and that infections remain rare in humans. The virus is primarily found in small mammal populations throughout Alaska.

“Six of the seven cases have been mild and self-limited, so the patient didn’t even need to get any supportive care from a health care provider,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist and chief of the Alaska Section of Epidemiology at the Alaska Department of Health.

It is unknown how it spreads between animals and humans, though the report from the health department noted the man had been taking care of a stray cat that had scratched him.

The cat tested negative for the virus, according to the statement.

It’s unclear how the virus is transmitted but researchers say it may be zoonotic, meaning it can jump from animals to humans, according to The Associated Press.

The fatal case took months to diagnose, The Anchorage Daily News reported. The other cases produced only mild symptoms, the health department reported.

The man had discovered a “tender red papule in his right axilla” in September 2023, before being hospitalized in November “due to extensive progression of presumed infectious cellulitis that impacted the range of motion of his right arm.”

After several tests, the man eventually “exhibited delayed wound healing, malnutrition, acute renal failure, and respiratory failure” before his January death, the Department of Health shared.

What is Alaskapox and should you be concerned if you don’t live in Alaska? Here’s what we know now:

What is Alaskapox?

Alaskapox is a virus that was discovered in 2015. The virus belongs to the orthopoxvirus genus, which also includes viruses such as smallpox and mpox.

According to McLaughlin, Alaskapox is an “old world” virus, typically found in Africa, Asia and Europe.

If it is an “old world” virus, why was it just found in Alaska?

While it was first talked about only a few years ago, likely, it was around for some time.

“It’s very possible that this virus has been present in Alaska for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” McLaughlin said.

“What has changed is clinician awareness and the general public’s awareness that Alaskapox virus is something that’s a possibility,” McLaughlin said. “It’s possible that cases occurred prior to 2015 and were just subclinical or mildly clinical and just were not diagnosed.”

If I don’t live in Alaska, do I need to worry about this?

Those who have been diagnosed with the virus have all lived in the Fairbanks, Alaska, area, according to health officials.

The man who died from the virus lived outside of that area on the Kenai Peninsula, about 500 miles away.

Of the six cases reported in Fairbanks, there were no deaths. All of the people with reported cases said they came into contact with an animal.

The virus is more widespread than previously thought, according to Dr. Julia Rogers, an epidemiologist with the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assigned to the Alaska Department of Health.

“We were able to sequence the virus from this patient’s case, and it did show that there was a distinction between this case and the clusters of cases that we were able to sequence from Fairbanks,” Rogers said.

No cases have been diagnosed outside of Alaska, Rogers said.

What are the symptoms of Alaskapox?

Symptoms typically include:

  • One or more skin lesions that look at first like a spider bite.
  • Swollen lymph nodes.
  • Muscle pain.
  • Fever.

As with other viruses, people with weakened immune systems can have more severe symptoms, health officials noted.

Can it spread between humans?

While some orthopoxviruses can spread between people through direct contact with skin lesions, health officials say there is no evidence that a person with Alaskapox can spread it to someone else.

“There’s no need for people outside of Alaska to be concerned,” McLaughlin said. “Those within Alaska should just be aware that it is an infection that they can acquire.”

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