Recent Death Brings Attention to Alaskapox Virus

    17 February 2024

    Health officials in the American state of Alaska have known for nine years about a virus causing rare, mild illness. But a recent case that resulted in a man's death has brought new attention to what is being called the Alaskapox virus.

    Here's some background on the virus:

    What is Alaskapox?

    This image provided by the Alaska Department of Health shows several Alaskapox lesions. (Alaska Department of Health via AP)
    This image provided by the Alaska Department of Health shows several Alaskapox lesions. (Alaska Department of Health via AP)

    Alaskapox belongs to the family of orthopoxviruses that can infect animals and humans. These viruses usually cause lesions, or pox, on the skin. Some are more dangerous than others.

    Smallpox is the best-known member of the orthopoxvirus family. Others include camelpox, cowpox, horsepox and mpox (formerly known as monkeypox).

    Alaskapox was discovered in 2015 in a woman who lived near Fairbanks, Alaska. It mainly has been found in small mammals, including red-backed voles and shrews. But house animals, such as dogs and cats, can carry the virus, health officials say.

    Seven people in Alaska have become infected with it in the last nine years.

    People with Alaskapox have developed one or more bumps on the skin. They also experience joint, or muscle pain and swollen parts of the body called lymph nodes.

    Nearly all patients had mild sickness that went away after a few weeks. But people with weak immune systems can be at risk of more severe sickness.

    Officials believe Alaskapox spreads through contact with infected animals.

    There has been no documented case of it spreading from one person to another. But other viruses in the same family can spread when one person comes in contact with another person's lesions.

    So, Alaskan health officials are advising anyone with an Alaskapox lesion to cover it with a bandage.

    What happened in the latest case?

    Alaska health officials say there have been seven people infected with Alaskapox since the virus was discovered. But the latest case represents the first time someone is known to have died from it.

    The older man lived on the Kenai Peninsula. He was being treated for cancer and had a suppressed immune system because of the drugs. In September, he found a red sore under his right armpit and saw doctors over the next two months because of tiredness and burning pain. Alaska public health officials said he was hospitalized in November and died last month.

    The man lived in a forested area away from any town and did not travel. They said he had been repeatedly scratched by a cat that hunted small animals, and one of the scratches was in the area of the man's armpit, officials said.

    How to protect yourself?

    Health officials believe that Alaskapox is rare.

    That said, wildlife can carry infection risks and should not be kept at home. The best way to keep pets and family members safe is to keep a safe distance and wash your hands after being outdoors.

    I'm Mario Ritter, Jr.

    Mike Stobbe reported this story for the Associated Press. Hai Do adapted it for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    lesion –n. a painful or infected area on the skin

    swollen –adj. larger than usual because of sickness or damage

    mild –adj. not serious, not causing a lot of difficulty or pain

    immune system –n. the system of cells and substances used by the body to fight infection and sickness

    scratch –v. to come into contact with something sharp, like a cat's claw, which causes a thin narrow cut