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What Is Alaskapox, the Disease That Killed an Elderly Man in Alaska?

Health officials confirmed that a man from Kenai Peninsula died in late January

<p>Getty</p> A view of an Alaska landscape

Getty

A view of an Alaska landscape

An elderly man in Alaska's remote Kenai Peninsula died of Alaskapox in late January, marking the first reported death of someone who contracted the recently discovered virus, health officials have confirmed.

The infection, also known as AKPV and closely related to smallpox, has reportedly been contracted by only seven people since 2015, when the orthopoxvirus was first discovered in a patient living near Fairbanks.

The unnamed man who died last month, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Division of Public Health, was the first person to contact the "self-limiting illness" who didn't live in Fairbanks. He was immunocompromised and undergoing cancer treatment, and 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.

He notably lived alone with "no recent travel and no close contacts with recent travel, illness, or similar lesions." He cared for a stray cat that had scratched him, he told officials. "The route of exposure in this case remains unclear, although scratches from the stray cat represent a possible source of inoculation through fomite transmission," health officials have shared. "SOE is working with the University of Alaska Museum and CDC to test small mammals for AKPV outside of the Interior region."

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<p>Getty Images</p> Patient in a hospital bed

Getty Images

Patient in a hospital bed

But what exactly is Alaskapox?

Being part of the orthopox family of viruses, Alaskapox is closely related to smallpox, cowpox and mpox (formerly monkeypox). The virus is suggested by evidence to be zoonotic and is also believed to be spread from small rodents to humans. According to the Alaska Department of Health's website, Alaskapox has been "most commonly identified in red-backed voles and shrews" based on sampling. Domestic pets "may also play a role in spreading the virus."

University of Essex lecturer and research fellow at the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial College London Stathis Giotis told The Telegraph that scientists are not certain on all the ways the virus is spread, noting that outside of rodents, some patients "have suggested they were bitten by spiders, cats, or dogs."

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“There is no reason to be alarmed, however. It is always good to be better informed about our interactions with wildlife," Giotis said. "Washing our hands carefully with soap or alcohol-based products helps to protect against viruses, as well as recognizing the signs of infection.”

Symptoms, per the health department's website, have included skin lesions, swollen lymph nodes and muscle and joint pain, with people who are immunocompromised being at increased risk "for more severe illness."

"To date, no human-to-human transmission of Alaskapox virus has been documented," the department notes. "However, since certain orthopoxviruses can be transmitted through direct contact with skin lesions, we recommend that people with skin lesions possibly caused by Alaskapox keep the affected area covered with a bandage."

As for how to treat Alaskapox, the department encourages patients to avoid touching their lesions, to keep them dry and covered, practice "good hand hygiene," avoid sharing clothing that could've touched the lesions, and "launder clothing and linens separately from other household items."

Alaskans are also encouraged to "follow CDC guidelines for staying healthy around wildlife to prevent potential AKPV infections."

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