Looking at Alaskapox: Recent death puts virus seen in small animals in spotlight

Feb 14, 2024, 7:07 PM

Image: Fallen ice melts in an ice cave created by meltwater at the retreating Castner Glacier in th...

Fallen ice melts in an ice cave created by meltwater at the retreating Castner Glacier in the Alaska Range on May 5, 2023 near Paxson, Alaska. The ice cave is slowly collapsing after a surge of meltwater and high temperatures in 2022. (Photo: Mario Tama, Getty Images)

(Photo: Mario Tama, Getty Images)

For nine years, Alaska health officials have been aware of an unusual virus causing rare, relatively mild illnesses in the Fairbanks area. But a recent case in another part of the state — this one resulting in a man’s death — has brought new attention to the so-called Alaskapox virus.

Here’s some background on the virus:

What happened in the latest case?

Alaska health officials are aware of seven people infected with Alaskapox since the virus was discovered, but the latest case represents the first time someone is known to have died from it.

The elderly man, who lived in the Kenai Peninsula, was being treated for cancer and had a suppressed immune system because of the drugs. In September, he noticed a red sore under his right armpit and went to see doctors over the next two months because of fatigue and burning pain. He was hospitalized in November and died last month, according to a bulletin last week from Alaska public health officials.

Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist and chief of the Alaska Section of Epidemiology at the Alaska Department of Health, told KIRO Newsradio this week the man was treated, but the patient eventually succumbed to his injuries.

“The most recent case occurred in a patient who was immunocompromised. The patient ultimately just was not able to fight off the virus even though the patient was given treatment,” McLaughlin said.

Earlier coverage: Man is first reported person to die of recently discovered Alaskapox virus

The man lived in a remote forested area and did not travel. He had been repeatedly scratched by a stray cat that hunted small animals, and one of the scratches was in the area of the man’s armpit, officials said.

What is Alaskapox?

Alaskapox, also known as AKPV, belongs to a family of brick-shaped viruses that can infect animals and humans. These bugs, known as orthopoxviruses, tend to cause lesions, or pox, on the skin. Each has its own characteristics, and some are considered more dangerous than others.

Smallpox is perhaps the most famous of the lot, but other family members include camelpox, cowpox, horsepox and mpox — formerly known as monkeypox.

Alaskapox was discovered in 2015 in a woman who lived near Fairbanks, Alaska. It mainly has been found in small mammals, including red-backed voles and shrews. But pets, such as dogs and cats, may also carry the virus, health officials say.

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McLaughlin also told KIRO Newsradio that it is possible the virus isn’t new, it just may be new to us.

“The Alaskapox virus may have been present and circulating in the small mammal populations in Alaska for a long, long time, perhaps hundreds if not thousands of years,” he said.

McLaughlin added that humans could have been exposed to this previously and it just wasn’t spotted until the last decade.

“It’s very possible there could have been Alaskapox virus cases occurring in Alaska for many, many years prior to 2015,” he said.

What are the symptoms of Alaskapox?

People with Alaskapox have developed one or more bumps or pustules on the skin, as well as joint or muscle pain and swollen lymph nodes.

Nearly all patients had mild illnesses that resolved on their own after a few weeks. But people with weakened immune systems can be in danger for more severe illness.

“They had mild to moderate symptoms including initial fever, swollen lymphnodes, joint (and) muscle pain, some general malaise or fatigue and then some localized skin lesions,” Julia Rogers, Ph.D., an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said to KIRO Newsradio.

How does Alaskapox spread?

Officials believe Alaskapox spreads through contact with infected animals.

It’s unclear how AKPV is transmitted but researchers say it may be zoonotic, meaning it can jump from animals to humans. The bulletin said that tests found evidence of current or previous infection in several species of small mammals in the Fairbanks area, including red-backed voles, and at least one domestic pet.

The man who died said he had cared for a stray cat at his home, the bulletin said.

The cat tested negative for the virus but it “regularly hunted small mammals and frequently scratched the patient,” the bulletin said.

That opens the possibility that the cat had the virus on its claws when it scratched him. The bulletin said a “notable” scratch near the armpit area where the first symptom — a red lesion — was noted.

There has been no documented case of it spreading from one person to another. But other viruses in the same family can spread when one person comes in contact with another person’s lesions, so Alaska health officials are advising anyone with an Alaskapox lesion to cover it with a bandage.

“We have not seen any cases where a person acquired the virus from another person,” McLaughlin said. “That’s not to say it couldn’t potentially happen.”

How can I protect myself and my pets?

Alaskapox is a rare illness that in most cases causes a relatively mild symptoms, health officials believe.

That said, wildlife can carry infections risks. Health officials say the best ways to keep pets and family members safe is to keep a safe distance and wash your hands after being outdoors. Also, not try to keep wildlife as pets.

“What we’re saying here in Alaska is that people don’t need to be overly concerned about the virus,” McLaughlin said. “But they do need to be aware that the virus is present and is circulating in small mammals in Alaska.”

Contributing: The Associated Press; Chris Martin, KIRO Newsradio; Steve Coogan, MyNorthwest

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Looking at Alaskapox: Recent death puts virus seen in small animals in spotlight