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Mild ‘Alaskapox’ cases diagnosed in Fairbanks area this past summer

Alaskapox lesion
Alaskapox lesion(Alaska DHSS)
Published: Sep. 27, 2021 at 9:59 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Two recent cases of “Alaskapox,” a virus found exclusively in the state, were identified in the Fairbanks area this summer, but health experts say it’s no reason to worry.

The new cases bring the total count of “Alaskapox” cases ever identified up to four. The first two cases were found in July 2015 and August 2020, according to a State of Alaska Epidemiology bulletin.

“Alaskapox” is a type of orthopox virus — like smallpox and vaccinia virus — however, the illnesses are very different, and there isn’t evidence it can be spread person-to-person, according to Lt. Eric Mooring, an officer in the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist assigned to the Alaska Division of Public Health.

“In humans, specifically, discovering new viruses worldwide, on average happens just a couple times a year,” he said. “So it’s rare, but certainly not unprecedented.”

It’s important for people to know about the virus to be able to identify it, but Mooring said “Alaskapox” is not something to be worried about.

The four people in the Fairbanks area are the only people known to have contracted it. Mooring said they’ve all healed, and the virus was likely transmitted through small mammals.

“We have preliminarily — based on efforts to trap small mammals that were done last year — found some evidence of the virus in a number of different mammals species — voles, shrews, squirrels,” he said.

Health experts are still working to figure out which of those species may play a larger role, he said.

“One of the interesting things about all four cases that we’ve seen is that they have been identified during the summer months, which relates to why we think it’s probably related to small mammals. That’s the time of year when people are most active, most likely to be outdoors,” he said.

So far, “Alaskapox” presents as a single spot on the skin, Mooring said.

“Usually, it starts out as a whitish mark, but the the center of the little lesion can become darker color, even brownish or blackish over time,” he said. “And importantly, the lesions have all been surrounded by a larger area of redness.”

People have also had swollen and painful lymph nodes and other mild symptoms like a low-grade fever, Mooring said. There’s still a lot to discover about the virus.

“We’ve learned a lot about this virus over the past few years, but still, we have only seen four cases ever. So, we are cautious in making too many generalizations from just four cases,” Mooring said.

He said people should just continue to practice common sense hygiene around animals and should avoid touching wildlife.

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