Alaska Reports First Fatal Case of Newly Identified Alaskapox Virus

Alaska’s health authorities have reported the state’s first death due to Alaskapox, a recently identified viral disease. The victim, an elderly man with a compromised immune system from the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage, passed away in late January while receiving treatment. According to the Alaska Department of Public Health, this case is one of only seven reported Alaskapox infections.

State epidemiologist Julia Rogers emphasized that while the public should not be overly alarmed, they should be more aware of the disease. The goal is to educate clinicians about Alaskapox so they can recognize its signs and symptoms. The virus, a double-stranded DNA virus from the same genus as smallpox, monkeypox, and cowpox, was first identified in an adult in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2015. It is most commonly found in small mammals such as voles and shrews.

The diagnosis of this fatal case, the first identified outside of Alaska’s interior, took several months. Previously, Alaskapox had only presented mild symptoms in patients, typically a localized rash and swollen lymph nodes. Other patients diagnosed with the virus did not require treatment, but they all had healthy immune systems, according to health officials.

The man’s compromised immune system likely played a significant role in his death, officials said. However, how he contracted the virus remains a mystery. The man, who lived alone in a wooded area and had not recently traveled, could have contracted Alaskapox from a cat he lived with. The cat, which frequently hunted small mammals, scratched him when his symptoms began. Although the cat tested negative for the virus, it could have been transmitted through its claws.

In September, the man noticed a red bump in his right armpit and was prescribed antibiotics. However, six weeks later, his symptoms had worsened and included fatigue and pain. He was admitted to a hospital in Anchorage in December, where he underwent extensive testing and initially tested positive for cowpox. Further testing by the Centers for Disease Control revealed it was actually Alaskapox. His condition initially improved after a week of intravenous medications, but he passed away in late January due to kidney and respiratory failure, according to health officials.