ANCHORAGE, Alaska– An elderly man died of Alaskan smallpox, the first known death from the newly discovered virus, state health officials said.
The man, who lived on the remote Kenai Peninsula, was hospitalized last November and died in late January, according to a bulletin last week from Alaska public health officials.
The man was receiving cancer treatment and had a weakened immune system due to the medications, which may have contributed to the severity of his illness, according to the bulletin. He described him as elderly but did not provide his age.
Alaskan smallpox, also known as AKPV, is related to smallpox, cowpox and mpox, health officials said. Symptoms may include a rash, swollen lymph nodes, and joint or muscle pain.
Only six other cases of the virus have been reported to Alaska health officials since the first in 2015. All of the people involved lived in the Fairbanks area, more than 300 miles (483 kilometers) from the Kenai Peninsula, officials said. of health.
All had mild cases and recovered without being hospitalized.
The man who died “resided alone in a wooded area and did not report any recent travel or close contact with recent travel, similar illnesses or injuries,” the health bulletin said.
It’s unclear how AKPV is transmitted, but researchers say it may be zoonotic, meaning it can jump from animals to humans. The bulletin said testing found evidence of current or previous infection in several species of small mammals in the Fairbanks area, including red-backed voles and at least one domestic pet.
The man said he had cared for a stray cat in his home, according to the bulletin.
The cat tested negative for the virus, but “regularly hunted small mammals and frequently scratched the patient,” the bulletin said.
That opens the possibility that the cat had the virus on its claws when it scratched it. The bulletin said there was a “notable” scratch near the armpit area where the first symptom was noticed: a red lesion.
Health officials said there have been no documented cases of humans transmitting the virus, but they advised people with skin lesions possibly caused by Alaskan smallpox to cover the affected area with a bandage.
Other suggestions are to wash your hands thoroughly, avoid sharing clothing that may have touched the lesions, and wash clothes and sheets separately from other household items.
Health officials also urged Alaskans to follow federal health precautions when around wild animals to avoid possible Alaska smallpox infections.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing your hands with soap and water after coming into contact with wild animals or their feces. Hunters should always wear gloves when handling dead animals, even if they are freshly killed, the agency suggests.