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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

Currently, more than 10,000 species of viruses have been recognized by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. We know that about 270 of them can infect people.

Some of these viruses have been known for centuries, such as polio and smallpox, while others like Alaskapox have only recently emerged. In fact, viruses constitute about two-thirds of all new human pathogens. These new viruses differ widely in their risk to human health, ranging from the rare and mild illness caused by the Menangle virus to the devastating public health impact of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Of the viruses known to infect humans, about 80% are naturally occurring in nonhuman hosts, primarily in mammals and birds and, to a lesser extent, in arthropods and other wildlife.

Infectious agents transmitted from animals to humans are estimated to constitute about 60% of known human pathogens and up to 75% of emerging human pathogens. Unfortunately, there is insufficient knowledge about wild animals that may harbor thousands of unknown virus species that could be human pathogens.

The evidence so far indicates that the Alaskapox virus is present in several species of small mammals, most notably shrews and the red-backed vole. In other words, Alaskapox is a new example of an infectious disease that can make the leap from animals to humans, a process known as zoonosis. Although available data suggests that the public health impact of Alaskapox virus is limited, it is likely widespread in small mammal populations in Alaska, and other infections in people may not have been diagnosed.

At present, no person-to-person transmission of Alaskapox has been documented. However, because some types of orthopoxviruses can be transmitted by direct contact with skin lesions, it is recommended that people with wounds that are suspected to be caused by Alaskapox keep the affected area covered with a bandage.

In addition to Alaskapox virus, some other orthopoxviruses have recently been recognized, such as Akhmeta virus and/or Abatino virus, that highlight the possibility of unknown members of this genus with zoonotic potential.

Other orthopoxviruses with zoonotic potential, such as mpox virus and cowpox virus, are increasingly being reported as a cause of human disease. In fact, the ongoing mpox outbreak that started in May 2022 has resulted in more than 93,000 cases and 177 deaths. This situation may have been facilitated by the discontinuation of routine vaccination against the eradicated human smallpox, as this vaccine gave rise to some degree of population immunity against other orthopoxviruses.


In addition to the above, there are many other orthopoxviruses that infect mammals. Examples are the ectromelia virus that causes mousepox, camelpox, raccoonpox, gerbilpox and skunkpox or some sublineages of vaccinia virus such as rabbitpox and buffalopox.

Poxviruses infect a broad spectrum of hosts, including insects, birds, reptiles and mammals. The wide host range, the wide geographical distribution and the constant global emergence of zoonotic viruses, including new orthopoxviruses, pose a global health threat that requires close monitoring and appropriate preventive measures.

In this situation, I believe the most prudent course of action is to urgently adopt a One Health approach that recognizes that the health of humans, animals, plants and the wider environment are interconnected, and accept that we cannot address human health without also addressing animal and environmental health.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and trustworthy analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Raúl Rivas González, Universidad de Salamanca

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Raúl Rivas González does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


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