An elderly man has become the first person ever recorded to have died from the Alaskapox virus.
He reportedly lived alone in a forested area of the state’s Kenai Peninsula and cared for a stray cat at his home.
The cat regularly scratched the man and hunted small animals, the health department said.
However, a swab was taken from the cat and tested for antibodies and orthopoxvirus but came back negative.
For now, it is unclear how the man was exposed to the disease though the scratches from the cat have not yet been ruled out as a possible source.
The elderly man first discovered a tender red papule, a raised bump on the skin, on his right armpit in mid-September, the health department said.
Over the next six weeks, he was prescribed multiple antibiotics regimens and he underwent a punch biopsy.
Despite the antibiotics, he was experiencing fatigue and pain in the area of his right armpit and shoulder.
By mid-November, he was hospitalised before being transferred to a hospital in Anchorage.
While there, he complained of a severe burning pain. His right armpit, where he had the biopsy, was not healing and was draining copious amounts of fluid with a surrounding grey plaque.
He eventually had a test result that was consistent with Alaskapox but was distinct from previous cases found in Fairbanks.
He underwent treatment and initially looked like he was improving, but later showed signs of his wounds not healing, malnutrition, acute renal failure and respiratory failure. He died in late January 2024.
The man suffered from a weak immune system which is thought to have contributed to the severity of his illness.
Prior to this fatal case, Alaskapox had only been recorded in humans in the interior region of Alaska.
But due to this case, “AKPV appears to be more geographically widespread in Alaska’s small mammals than previously known and warrants increased statewide awareness among clinicians,” the health agency said.
Alaskapox, or AKPV, is an orthopox virus that has been mostly identified in small mammals.
It has been confirmed to occur in two species – red-backed voles and shrews – in Fairbanks.
If transmitted to humans, it can cause symptoms such as producing skin bumps or pustules, along with swollen lymph nodes and joint and muscle pain.
The virus was first identified in 2015 in a woman from Fairbanks, Alaska. Another five cases have since been reported in Alaska, all in Fairbanks North Star Borough.
The elderly man from the Kenai Peninsula marks the seventh case – and the first that is fatal.
It is currently unclear how the virus is transmitted from animals to humans, but contact with small mammals and pets who have interacted with small mammals could be a potential source.
No human-to-human Alaskapox transmission has ever been recorded.
The Alaska Health Department recommends bandaging up the affected area to stop anyone from having direct contact with the bumps.