Don’t Worry About ‘Alaskapox’
Two people have had mild infections from a virus related to smallpox that’s thought to have originated in mammals
Among all the known diseases circulating these days, Alaskapox can be placed near the very bottom of your worry list. In fact, I’m writing about it only to help ensure nobody gets any other ideas.
Last month, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported the second case of a person infected by a novel orthopoxvirus, a genus of viruses that includes smallpox. The novel virus, dubbed Alaskapox by virologists, is thought to circulate in one or more species of mammals in the interior of the state.
The first case of Alaskapox in a human was identified five years ago. The latest news, if it can be called that, had not gained much attention but was mentioned yesterday in a news bulletin of CIDRAP, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
Both infections occurred in the Fairbanks area, and officials say there’s little cause for concern. In the most recent infection, the woman had a small cut on her shoulder, fever, fatigue and shoulder pain that persisted for about two weeks. She does not know where or how she might have contracted the virus, but scientists assume the lesion was its entry point.
“Based on what is known about the epidemiology and ecology of other orthopoxviruses, and based on evidence from these two cases, we hypothesize that Alaskapox virus is most likely enzootic [normally affecting animals] in one or more species of mammals in Interior Alaska and that humans are only occasionally infected,” the state health department says. “The available evidence suggests that the public health impact of Alaskapox virus is limited. Importantly, there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission.”
Smallpox dogged humans for thousands of years. It spread from person-to-person and killed about 30% of those infected, leaving others with permanent scars and sometimes blindness. With vaccines, the last smallpox outbreak in the United States was in 1949, and by 1980 The World Health Organization declared it eradicated.
Scientists have not suggested that the symptoms of Alaskapox have been or would be anything like smallpox.
Health officials do not know how Alaskapox might be transmitted from animals to humans, nor which animals are responsible. The woman recently infected had been berry picking two weeks prior to symptom onset, she lives with cats and had regular contact with dogs — all items of note in the health department’s telling. The woman infected in 2015 “had contact with small mammals and their droppings,” but health officials never determined the source of her infection.
More cases could be uncovered as doctors learn to look for the disease, the health department said, adding this advice: “Persons with suspected orthopoxvirus lesions should be advised to keep the lesions dry and covered, to not touch them, and to not share with other people towels and other items that might come into contact with the lesion.”