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Elderly man becomes first ever recorded death from ‘Alaskapox’

Reflections in blue waters of Horseshoe Lake at Denali National Park in Alaska USA
The virus was first observed by scientists in Alaska - Getty Images Contributor

An elderly man has become the first recorded patient to die from ‘Alaskapox’ – a recently discovered virus closely related to smallpox.

Just seven cases of the infection have been reported since 2015, when it was first observed by scientists in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Known as AKPV, the virus is thought to spread from small rodents to humans. It causes mild illness including small skin lesions, swollen lymph nodes, and muscle pain.

The man who died from AKPV was immunocompromised and undergoing treatment for cancer, leading to complications after one of his skin lesions became infected. This resulted in kidney failure and ultimately his death in late January.

He 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.

There is no evidence that AKPV can be transmitted between humans, although Alaskan health officials advised skin lesions should be covered with bandages as an extra precaution.

The Alaska Department of Health also warned that domestic pets such as cats and dogs “may also play a role in spreading the virus.”

Dr Stathis Giotis, a Research Fellow at the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial College London and lecturer of Molecular Virology at the University of Essex, said scientists had yet to establish the pathogen’s main route of transmission.

“Although we know the virus spreads in small rodents, such as voles and shrews, some patients in the past have suggested they were bitten by spiders, cats, or dogs. We don’t really know how it is spread at this point,” he said.

“There is no reason to be alarmed, however. It is always good to be better informed about our interactions with wildlife. Washing our hands carefully with soap or alcohol-based products helps to protect against viruses, as well as recognising the signs of infection.”

Although first discovered nearly 10 years ago, Alaskapox may have been circulating for a “long time before that” due to its mild nature, added Dr Giotis, meaning most infections would have flown under the radar.

Alaskapox is a species of the Orthopoxvirus genus. Other members of this family that can infect humans include cowpox, smallpox, and mpox.

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