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Should we be worried about Alaskapox?

Cameron Tower
Staff Writer

An elderly man in South Alaska died of Alaskapox last month, state health officials confirmed. Characterized by skin lesions and related to viruses like smallpox and mpox, this is the first recorded fatality attributed to Alaskapox since its identification in 2015. The unnamed elderly man is only the seventh recorded case of the virus.

The man, having been treated for cancer and therefore was immunosuppressed, first reported symptoms of the virus in September of last year. He made frequent visits to both primary care facilities and the local emergency room in the months following and was prescribed antibiotics, but did little to alleviate his deteriorating health. Before death, the man experienced lesions, malnutrition, and acute kidney and respiratory failure before succumbing to the virus, state health officials said.

The case of Alaskapox was tied to a stray cat (Photo courtesy of Live Science)

The man pointed to a stray cat that had scratched him as the likely transmitter of the virus. Alaskapox is primarily carried by small mammals in the area such as shrews and the red-backed vole, and can transmit from animals to humans through scratches and bites. Previous examples of related viruses in the orthopoxviruses family, namely mpox and smallpox, posed global health threats and required preventative measures such as vaccines to either control or eradicate them.

Despite this, it should be pointed out that Alaskapox is a localized virus, and infection is rare and so far only in the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. The CDC, Alaska Department of Health, and the University of Alaska are working to determine whether the circulation of the virus, transmitted primarily through small rodents, is growing beyond the identified area.

Officials though are generally unworried about a potential uptick in cases that would result in a major health concern. “Alaskapox remains a rare disease, and we don’t have any evidence to indicate that the incidence is increasing over time,” says state epidemiologist Dr. Joseph McLaughlin, and states that the virus has likely been in circulation for a long time and has only been identified due to human infection. Additionally, there is no recorded case of human-to-human transmission of Alaskapox, a key trait of widely spread viruses, although other viruses in this family can spread this way.

The consensus health officials have come to is that Alaskapox remains a novel virus that creates only mild and recoverable symptoms for the majority of those diagnosed with it. For the immunocompromised population, it is important that doctors can detect Alaskapox early, and state officials urge those who experience lesions and rashes to immediately go to their primary care doctor.

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