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What is Alaskapox? A microbiologist explains the recently discovered virus that just claimed its first fatality

Raúl Rivas González, Universidad de Salamanca, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

Alaskapox, a virus in the same family as smallpox, cowpox and mpox, claimed its first fatality in January 2024 when an elderly Alaskan man died of the illness.

The virus, which was discovered in 2015, had previously resulted in only relatively mild illnesses in the six other people infected by it. So why did the Alaskan man die?

Raúl Rivas González, a microbiologist at the University of Salamanca in Spain, explains what we know about Alaskapox, what happened to the man in Alaska, and the threat posed by the thousands of similar viruses out there.

Alaskapox is an orthopox virus discovered in 2015 in the Fairbanks area of Alaska.

Until the most recent case, there were only six known human infections, which all involved mild illnesses consisting of a localized rash and the swelling of lymph nodes.

In mid-September 2023, the man was living on the Kenai Peninsula, south of the city of Anchorage, Alaska, and undergoing drug treatment for cancer, and so had a suppressed immune system. He noticed a tender red papule – a type of skin lesion – in his right armpit.

 

Understandably, he was scared and decided to go to the doctor immediately. Over the next six weeks, he made several visits to the primary care center and the local emergency department for clinical evaluation of the lesion.

The case was confusing and the possible infection difficult to identify. He did not respond to antibiotic treatment. A needle biopsy revealed no evidence of malignancy or bacterial infection. The health care providers were puzzled.

After the situation worsened, the man was hospitalized in Anchorage. Eventually, doctors performed an extensive battery of tests and sent a sample to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which determined he had Alaskapox.

He was immediately given treatment for the virus, but it was too late and he died at the end of January. Officials confirmed the cause of death was Alaskapox in February.

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