Understanding Alaskapox: A Rare Viral Disease Linked to Animal Exposure

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Dr. Jessica Nelson
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Understanding Alaskapox: A Rare Viral Disease Linked to Animal Exposure

Alaskapox, a relatively rare viral disease primarily affecting small mammals, has recently come into focus due to its first fatal human case. The disease, first identified in Fairbanks, Alaska in 2015, has only had six confirmed cases, all of which were attributed to contact with animals. However, the recent death of an immunocompromised elderly man on the Kenai Peninsula has raised concerns among health officials.

A Closer Look at Alaskapox

Alaskapox is an orthopoxvirus, a genus of viruses that includes smallpox, monkeypox, and cowpox. It has most commonly been found in red-backed voles and shrews. Symptoms in humans include skin lesions, swollen lymph nodes, and joint or muscle pain. No human-to-human transmission has been documented, suggesting that the disease is mainly contracted through direct contact with infected animals.

The First Fatal Case

The first fatal case of Alaskapox was confirmed in February 2024, involving an elderly, immunocompromised man from the Kenai Peninsula. Initially, the patient noticed a tender red papule in his right armpit, which eventually led to an extensive infection. Despite being hospitalized and undergoing treatment, the patient succumbed to the illness.

The fatal case took several months to diagnose, given that previous cases had only shown mild symptoms. The victim's immunocompromised condition, due to cancer treatment, likely contributed to the severity of the disease and ultimately, his death. This indicates that while Alaskapox may be generally non-lethal, it can have severe consequences for individuals with compromised immune systems.

The Geographical Spread of Alaskapox

Until the recent case on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaskapox cases were thought to be localized to the Fairbanks North Star Borough. This development suggests that the geographic distribution of Alaskapox could be wider than previously believed, prompting health officials to urge increased awareness among clinicians statewide.

Furthermore, the strain of Alaskapox found in the Kenai man was distinct from that found in people and animals in the Interior region, hinting at possible regional variations of the virus. Health department staff are now working to test small mammals for AKPV outside of the Interior region.

Implications and Precautions

The recent fatal case of Alaskapox highlights the potential seriousness of this rare disease, especially for immunocompromised individuals. While the disease is not known to spread from human to human, people with skin lesions possibly caused by Alaskapox are advised to keep the affected area covered with a bandage to avoid potential transmission.

Healthcare providers are encouraged to contact the Alaska Section of Epidemiology if they suspect an Alaskapox virus infection. A heightened level of awareness and vigilance can help in early detection and treatment, potentially preventing severe outcomes.