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Alaskapox: What You Need to Know

Cats and dogs may spread recently discovered virus

spinner image map of the state of alaska with the fairbanks area targeted and images of small mammals a red squirrel a vole and a shrew as well as a photo of an alaskapox lesion on a persons arm
Getty Images, lesion photo courtesy of Alaska Division of Public Health; photo collage AARP

Alaskapox, a recently identified virus known for causing skin lesions, claimed its first victim in an older man last month. With seven confirmed infections reported since 2015, public health officials are gathering more information about the virus’ spread and treatment. Here’s what we know so far:

What is Alaskapox?

Alaskapox causes skin lesions, swollen lymph nodes and joint or muscle pain, which most patients initially mistake for a spider or other insect bite, according to the Alaska Division of Public Health.

It is an orthopoxvirus, related to smallpox and mpox, both of which cause skin lesions. Nearly all patients had mild illness that cleared up on their own in a few weeks.

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Where does Alaskapox occur?

The first recorded case of the virus occurred near Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2015. Since then, five additional cases occurred in the same area and a seventh case appeared about 300 miles south in the Kenai Peninsula.

The virus has primarily affected small mammals, with confirmed cases in red-backed voles and shrews in the Fairbanks area. However, evidence suggests the virus may be present in other small animals throughout the state. Therefore, there may have been additional infections in humans that were never identified, the Alaska Division of Public Health suggests.

How is Alaskapox transmitted?

Health officials aren’t sure how the virus can move from animals to people. But they believe that contact with small mammals and — potentially — pets may play a role.

The man who died from an Alaskapox infection lived alone in a wooded area and hadn’t recently traveled. But he reported caring for a stray cat that hunted small mammals and often scratched the patient. He had one prominent scratch near his right armpit that occurred about a month before he showed signs of the illness.

Although human-to-human transmission has not been recorded, we know that other othopoxviruses can spread by direct contact with lesions.

What is the treatment process?

The Alaska Division of Public Health doesn’t have information publicly available on the treatment process. Antiviral drugs are typically prescribed for other orthopoxviruses such as smallpox and mpox.

The older man infected with the virus received antiviral medication and antibodies, leading to a reduction in his rash. Despite this initial improvement, he later developed malnutrition and ultimately succumbed to kidney and respiratory failure.

Are older adults more susceptible to severe illness?  

While it is not known whether some people are particularly susceptible to severe illness, the older man who died from an Alaskapox infection had a weakened immune system because of drugs he took for treating cancer.

What should I do if I think I have Alaskapox?

Speak with a health care provider and ask them to assess your symptoms. In the meantime, keep any lesions covered, refrain from touching them, and avoid sharing bedding or other linens with others.

Providers who think they have a patient infected with the virus should contact the Alaska Section of Epidemiology at 907-269-8000 to facilitate testing and treatment.

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