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Alaska confirms first fatal case of Alaskapox

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Alaska health officials confirmed the state's first fatal case of Alaskapox — a recently discovered viral disease.

An elderly immunocompromised man from the Kenai peninsula, south of Anchorage, died while undergoing treatment in late January, the Anchorage Daily News reported. 

He is one of only seven reported Alaskapox infections, the Alaska Department of Public Health said in an announcement on Friday.

"People should not necessarily be concerned but more aware," said Julia Rogers, a state epidemiologist. "So we're hoping to make clinicians more aware of what Alaskapox virus is, so that they can identify signs and symptoms."

The double-stranded-DNA virus, which comes from the same genus as smallpox, monkeypox and cowpox, was first identified in an adult in Fairbanks, Alaska in 2015. It is most common in small mammals, like voles shrews.

The fatal case, the first identified outside of Alaska's interior, took months to diagnose, as Alaskapox cases had previously only shown mild symptoms in patients — typically a localized rash and swollen lymph nodes.

An Alaskapox lesion about 10 days after symptom onset. Alaska Department of Health The disease is typically a localized rash and swollen lymph nodes. Alaska Department of Health The double-stranded-DNA virus, which comes from the same genus as smallpox, monkeypox and cowpox, was first identified in an adult in Fairbanks, Alaska in 2015. Alaska Department of Health

Other patients who had been diagnosed with the virus did not require treatment, but they all had healthy immune systems, health officials said.

Officials said the man's immunocompromised condition likely contributed to his death. How he contracted the virus remains unclear.

The man lived alone in the woods and reported no recent travel. Officials said its possible that he could have gotten Alaskapox from a cat he lived with who frequently hunted small mammals and scratched him when his symptoms started.

The cat tested negative for the virus — but it could have spread from its claws.

In September, the man noticed a red bump in his right armpit and was prescribed antibiotics. But six weeks later, his symptoms only grew and included fatigue and pain.

Alaskapox is most common in small mammals, like voles shrews, including the Northern Red-Backed Vole. Alaska Department of Health Symptoms of Alaskapox have included one or more skin lesions (bumps or pustules) and other symptoms like swollen lymph nodes and joint and/or muscle pain. Alaska Department of Health

He was hospitalized in Anchorage and underwent a "battery of tests" in December and tested positive for cowpox. Additional testing by the Centers for Disease Control revealed it was actually Alaskapox.

His condition initially improved a week after intravenous medications, but he died in late January after experiencing kidney and respiratory failure, health officials said.

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