Alaska reports 1st known death from Alaskapox

An older adult in Alaska died after contracting 'Alaskapox' — a form of orthopox virus which was discovered in 2015. It is the first reported death due to the virus, according to a Feb. 9 news release from the Alaska Division of Public Health.

The virus is similar to smallpox, monkeypox and chickenpox and forms skin lesions, can cause swollen lymph nodes, joint and muscle pain and death in extreme cases. It can be passed to humans from small mammals that carry the virus. 

"This is the first case of severe Alaskapox infection resulting in hospitalization and death…," the release states. "The route of exposure in this case remains unclear, although scratches from [a] stray cat represent a possible source of inoculation through fomite transmission."

There is no evidence that human to human transmission of Alaskapox has ever occurred, but other viruses that are similar can be transmitted via open lesions, so health officials note that care should be taken to protect lesions with bandages and infected patients should avoid sharing bedding, clothes or linens with anyone else. 

The man who died from the illness was already immunocompromised. He contracted the case in September 2023, but did not become hospitalized due to worsening condition until November, according to health officials. 

Since the discovery of the virus in a woman in 2015 who lived in Fairbanks, Ala., there have been seven reported cases of the illness and now one death.

"[E]vidence also suggests the virus is present in various other small mammal species in Alaska and its prevalence extends to areas outside of the Fairbanks North Star Borough," a document from the state's public health department explains. "We are not sure exactly how the virus spreads from animals to people, but contact with small mammals and potentially domestic pets who come into contact with small wild mammals could play a role." 

The CDC and public health officials will work alongside the University of Alaska to conduct additional mammal testing across other regions of the state to determine more about the presence of the virus.

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