By Emily Stearn, Health Reporter For Mailonline
12:33 13 Feb 2024, updated 13:16 13 Feb 2024
An elderly man has become the first ever recorded patient to die from Alaskapox – smallpox’s little-known cousin.
Just seven cases of the infection have been reported since 2015, when it was first observed by scientists in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The newly-recorded victim from Kenai Peninsula, to the south of the state, was undergoing treatment in hospital when he died in late January, officials confirmed.
But what is Alaskapox? And can it spread between humans? Here, MailOnline details everything you need to know about the virus.
Is Alaskapox similar to smallpox?
Known as AKPV, Alaskapox belongs to the orthopoxvirus family.
Other members include cowpox, monkeypox and smallpox, one of the deadliest diseases before it was eradicated.
The virus is thought to spread from small rodents such as voles and shrews to humans.
The Alaska Department of Health also warned that domestic pets such as cats and dogs ‘may also play a role in spreading the virus’.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of Alaskapox include skin lesions, swollen lymph nodes and joint and muscle pain — similar to the woes monkeypox causes.
Many of seven known cases initially thought they had suffered a spider or insect bite.
Health officials in Alaska recommend covering any skin lesions which develop and avoid touching the sore.
The unidentified man who died first spotted a red bump in his armpit in September 2023 and was prescribed courses of antibiotics after he visited A&E.
But as his symptoms worsened, experiencing fatigue and pain in his armpit and shoulder, he was hospitalised in November.
Medics noted he had ‘four smaller pox-like lesions’ in different parts of his body.
However he suffered further complications resulting in kidney failure and ultimately his death in late January.
Does it spread between humans?
Scientists are not yet certain on how the Alaskapox virus spreads but say evidence suggests it is zoonotic—a disease that jumps from animals into humans.
No human-to-human transmission of AKVP has yet been documented.
But other viruses of the same family, including smallpox and monkeypox, have been shown to pass through direct contact with infected people.
The unidentified man lived alone in a remote part of Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, and was thought to have been infected after being scratched by a stray cat, according to officials.
‘It is likely that the virus is present more broadly in Alaska’s small mammals and that more infections in humans have occurred but were not identified’, they added.
Sampling from small mammals in 2020 and 2021 in the Fairbanks North Star Borough in Alaska — where all six of the other virus cases occurred — found traces of the Alaskapox virus in red-backed voles and shrews.
How deadly is it?
This is the first case of an Alaskapox infection resulting in hospitalization and death ever reported.
However, officials noted the man was was immunocompromised and undergoing treatment for cancer, putting him at higher risk of severe illness.
Medics suggested this might have contributed to the severity of his illness and eventual death.
The other six patients had mild illnesses that resolved on their own after a few weeks.
What should patients do to stop it spreading?
State health officials advised those who develop lesions to avoid touching them and keep them dry and covered with bandages.
Practicing good hand hygiene and avoiding sharing cloth and linen with others, were among two other key recommendations.
People in regular contact with wildlife may also need to take extra precautions, officials said.
Is it confined to Alaska?
No cases have ever been reported outside of Alaska, suggesting it is confined to the state.
But this fatal case is the first to be reported in the Kenai Peninsula, to the south of the state, suggesting it has spread more widely within Alaska.
Mammals, equally, do not abide by border restrictions, indicating they could be spreading in Canada.
As the man lived alone in a forested area and reported no recent travel or close contacts with similar illness or travel, it also indicates the virus is more widely distributed in animals than previously thought, scientists added.
‘More animal testing is occurring to better understand the distribution of the virus in animal populations throughout Alaska.’