First death from new Alaska smallpox virus reported

An older adult with cancer died on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula in late January from Alaska smallpox (Alaskapox (AKPV), becoming the first known person to die from the virus, according to a statement issued Friday by the Alaska Department of Health.

The man, who was immunocompromised due to treatment for the disease, lived alone in a wooded area in Kenai and fed and interacted with a stray cat that regularly scratched him and hunted small mammals.

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The health authorities indicated that the symptoms of the deceased began with a large lesion in the armpit, and then had other lesions similar to those of smallpox.

Her primary care doctor notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) what was happening, and the agency confirmed that it was a unique strain of AKPV. The cat he was interacting with was tested for the virus, but it came back negative.

This is what a lesion caused by Alaska smallpox looks like.Alaska Department of Health

AKPV was first discovered in 2015 and belongs to the family of orthopoxviruses that infect mammals, including humans, causing skin lesions, the Alaska Department of Health detailed.

As of December 2023, six other infections with the virus had been reported. Many patients mistake their injuries for insect or spider bites, according to the institution, and have almost always experienced a “mild illness that resolved on its own after a couple of weeks.”

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“Current evidence indicates that the Alaskan smallpox virus occurs primarily in small mammals,” according to health authorities, who indicated that domestic animals such as cats and dogs “may also play a role in spreading the virus.”

“If you are trapping or hunting you should make sure you are trying to prevent any of your pets from interacting or coming into contact with these small mammals,” said epidemiologist Julia Rogers, who works for the CDC and is assigned to the Alaska Division of Public Health. cited by Alaska Public Media.

So far, no human-to-human transmission of the virus has been reported or documented, however, some orthopoxviruses “can be transmitted by direct contact with skin lesions.”

The Alaska Department of Health recommends that people with these types of wounds “possibly caused by Alaska smallpox keep the affected area covered with a bandage.”

Among the symptoms linked to the disease are skin lesions such as “lumps or pustules”, inflammation of the lymph nodes and muscle or joint pain. “Immunocompromised people may be at risk for more severe disease,” according to the institution.

The authorities also urged doctors to become familiar with the disease to be able to distinguish its first signs or symptoms, and also asked the population to report any suspected infections to the Alaska Department of Epidemiology.