An Alaska man has died from a disease with only seven known human victims, none of them fatalities.
The orthopoxvirus Alaskapox was identified nine years ago, according to the Alaska Department of Health.
The man who died lived in the Kenai Peninsula in the southern part of the state, about 500 miles from Fairbanks to the north, where all the previous cases had been clustered.
“I totally appreciate that that’s a new case, that people are surprised. But then, if you know the reality of diseases and the history of diseases, we shouldn’t be surprised,” Falk Huettmann, a University of Alaska Fairbanks biologist who studies wildlife diseases, said, according to the Alaska Beacon.
“Everything is possible by now,” he said.
The Kenai Peninsula man who died was elderly with a compromised immune system, according to a state epidemiology bulletin issued Friday.
He, like the individuals sicked by the disease near Fairbanks, lived in a wooded area where contact could have been possible with small mammals, the bulletin said.
Neither the epidemiology bulletin nor the Beacon identified him.
The man noticed lesions in his right armpit in September, according to the bulletin. He was admitted to a hospital in November and died in January, becoming the first Alaskapox fatality.
Would you ever vacation in Alaska?
The bulletin said the disease is carried by small mammals, in particular Alaska’s red-backed vole. The Kenai Peninsula man said he had been caring for a stray cat that had been hunting in the nearby forest, and it had scratched him several times.
The bulletin said it is likely the disease has now been spread by the voles and other mammals that harbor it across much of Alaska.
Prior to the Kenai Peninsula man’s death, Alaskapox infections caused little more than fevers and fatigue, said Julia Rogers, a state epidemiologist, according to the Beacon.
“All six prior cases were identified in an outpatient setting and involved mild illnesses that were largely resolved within a few weeks without hospitalization. None of these patients had significant prior medical history, including immunocompromising conditions,” Rogers said.
Link Olson, curator of mammals at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, said a 25-year-old vole specimen in the museum’s collection was tested and found to have the disease.
“We know this is not a last-10-years-thing,” he said, noting the potential exists for the disease to be found beyond Alaska.
“I fully expect that this will be detected across the boreal forest,” Olson said, describing a region that stretches all the way to Canada’s east coast.
“Orthopox viruses are zoonotic viruses, meaning that they circulate primarily within animal populations with spillover into humans occasionally,” she said.
Rogers said no evidence has been found of person-to-person transmission.
Alaska’s Health Department said symptoms include skin lesions, swollen lymph nodes and pain in the joints or muscles.
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