In Alaska, an elderly man died of Alaskapox, the first known death from the newly discovered virus, state health officials said. It’s unclear how the man contracted the virus, but authorities say it’s possible it was linked to a stray cat that lived with him.
The man, who lived on the remote Kenai Peninsula, was hospitalized last November and died in late January, according to a bulletin released Friday by Alaska public health officials.
The man was undergoing treatment for cancer and his immune system was weakened by the medications, which may have contributed to the severity of his illness, according to the bulletin. He describes him as elderly but does not specify his age.
Alaskapox, also known as AKPV, is linked to smallpox, cowpox and, health officials said. Symptoms may include a rash, swollen lymph nodes, and joint or muscle pain. People who are immunocompromised may be at increased risk of more severe illness, officials said.
Only six other cases of the virus have been reported to Alaska health officials since the first in 2015. All those involved lived in the Fairbanks area, more than 300 miles from the Kenai Peninsula, health officials said. All had mild cases and recovered without requiring hospitalization.
The deceased man “resided alone in a forest area and reported no recent travel or close contact with recent travel, illness or similar injuries,” the health bulletin said.
Virus may be linked to cat
It’s unclear how exactly AKPV is transmitted, but researchers say it could be zoonotic, meaning it can jump from animals to humans. The bulletin said testing revealed 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 animal.
The man said he had been caring for a stray cat in his home, according to the bulletin.
The cat tested negative for the virus but it “regularly hunted small mammals and frequently scratched the patient,” the bulletin said.
This opens the possibility that the cat had the virus on its claws when it scratched it. The bulletin noted a “notable” scratch near the armpit area, where the first symptom – a red lesion – was noted.
“The route of exposure in this case remains unclear, although the stray cat’s scratches represent a possible source,” officials wrote.
Health officials said there have been no documented cases of the virus being transmitted by humans, but they urged caution around people with skin lesions.
“We advise people with skin lesions potentially caused by Alaskapox to keep the affected area covered with a bandage and avoid sharing bedding or other linens that have come into contact with the lesion,” state the health officials.
Health officials also urged Alaskans to follow federal health precautions when around wildlife to avoid possible Alaskapox infections.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing hands with soap and water after contacting wild animals or their feces. Hunters should always wear gloves when handling dead animals, even if they have just been killed, the agency suggests.
The news comes as Oregon health officials recently confirmed ain a resident who was likely infected by his pet cat.
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