Officials Report the First Death of Alaskapox Virus

A Kenai Peninsula man infected with the rare Alaskapox virus died of complications, according to the State of Alaska Department of Health. The patient may have contracted the virus from a stray cat.

The bulletin released by Alaska health officials describes the case of an elderly man who sought medical help in mid-September 2023 after developing a tender red lesion in his shoulder area.

Despite taking antibiotics, the patient experienced fatigue, increasing pain, and skin hardening. As the condition progressed and continued impacting the range of motion of his right arm, the man was hospitalized.

Medical tests confirmed the infection with the Alaskapox virus. Although his condition temporarily improved, the patient died in late January 2024 due to delayed wound healing, malnutrition, acute renal failure, and respiratory failure.

The patient, who lived alone in a forested area, reported no recent travel and no close contact with people who had recently traveled or had similar lesions.

However, he reported caring for a stray cat at his residence that regularly hunted small mammals and frequently scratched the patient. The cat scratched the man in the shoulder area a month before the lesion appeared.

The bulletin states, “The route of exposure in this case remains unclear, although scratches from the stray cat represent a possible source of inoculation through fomite transmission.”

Alaska has recorded six additional cases of the Alaskapox virus since 2015, when the virus was discovered. Most patients had mild illnesses that resolved on their own after a few weeks.

As this is the first case resulting in hospitalization and death, the officials think that the patient’s immunocompromised status after recently undergoing cancer treatment likely contributed to illness severity.

What is the Alaskapox virus?

Alaskapox is an orthopoxvirus that can infect mammals, including humans, and can cause skin lesions. It was first discovered in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2015.

Current evidence suggests that the virus primarily occurs in small mammals and is most commonly detected in red-backed voles and shrews. Domestic pets, such as cats and dogs, may also play a role in spreading the virus.

No human-to-human transmission of the Alaskapox virus has been documented thus far. However, certain orthopoxviruses can be transmitted through direct contact with skin lesions, particularly broken skin contact with lesion secretions.

The Alaska Department of Health recommends people with skin lesions possibly caused by the Alaskapox virus keep the affected area covered with a bandage and avoid sharing bedding or other linens that have come into contact with the lesion.

The symptoms of the Alaskapox virus may include the following:

Alaska officials urge patients who think they may have Alaskapox to talk to their health care provider and keep the lesion covered.

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