Man dies from Alaskapox, health officials say: What to know about the relatively new, rare virus

The virus was first identified in Fairbanks in 2015, the Alaska DOH says.

ByYouri Benadjaoud ABCNews logo
Monday, February 12, 2024
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An Alaska resident has died from complications of a relatively new and rare virus known as Alaskapox, according to a bulletin posted by Alaska state public health officials.

The Alaskapox virus was first identified in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2015, according to the Alaska Department of Health. Since then, there have been only seven cases reported in the state, according to the state health department.

This is the first case of an Alaskapox infection resulting in hospitalization and death ever reported. State public health officials noted the patient was an elderly man who was immunocompromised, putting him at higher risk for severe illness.

"Alaskapox remains rare," Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist and chief of the Alaska Division of Public Health Section of Epidemiology, told ABC News. "For the vast majority of people who may come in contact with this virus, the clinical course will likely be mild."

The virus typically occurs in small animals, commonly identified in voles and shrews, according to the Alaska State Department of Health. There have been no reports of human-to-human spread, according to the state health agency.

"There's no evidence so far [of] person-to-person transmission for the cases that have been identified," Julia Rogers, Ph.D., epidemic intelligence service officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention embedded with the Alaska Department of Health, told ABC News.

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Stock photo
Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

"Given the rarity of Alaskapox and its generally mild course in healthy individuals, the risk to the general public remains low," said John Brownstein, Ph.D., chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital and an ABC News medical contributor.

It remains unclear how the deceased resident was infected with the virus. They lived alone in a forested area and reported caring for a stray cat, which later tested negative for the virus, according to the state's bulletin, issued Friday.

"It could be that the cat was catching voles or shrews and eating them and then have viable virus in its claws, and that was the route of [infection], through a scratch," McLaughlin said.

Over a span of six weeks, the patient had visited his doctor and local emergency room for a lesion and was prescribed antibiotic drugs, according to the bulletin. Eventually, as his situation deteriorated, he was hospitalized, where doctors sent in tests to the CDC, according to state health officials, which eventually identified the viral infection as Alaskapox. He succumbed to the virus a few weeks later, state health officials said.

"The most recent [fatal] case was in an elderly man that was immunocompromised, so his immune system was already not going to be able to handle infection," Rogers said.

Public health officials in Alaska are recommending doctors become familiar with the signs and symptoms of the virus and consider testing for patients they may suspect contracted the illness.

What to look for

If patients develop lesions, they should avoid touching them and keep them dry and covered, while practicing good hand hygiene and avoid sharing cloth and linen with others, according to the state health department.

Those in regular contact with wildlife may need to take extra precautions, officials said.

"There's lots of things that you can pick up from wildlife animals, and just try to take the best precautions you can and be safe and hygienic with contact with them," Rogers said.

Alaska public health officials hope awareness of the relatively new virus will allow for potential future cases to be identified easier.

"What we're expecting is that over time, as more clinicians become not only aware that Alaskapox virus is out there, but also aware of what to look for and how to actually test for it, that we are going to see more Alaskapox diagnoses in the months and years ahead," McLaughlin said.

"The recent unfortunate death of an immunocompromised individual underscores the potential severity of Alaskapox in vulnerable populations, highlighting the critical need for heightened awareness and diagnostic readiness among health care providers," Brownstein said.

"This case emphasizes the importance of monitoring wildlife diseases and their potential to impact human health, especially as human activities increasingly encroach on natural habitats," Brownstein added.