A Fairbanks Alaska Resident Catches a New Virus Similar to Smallpox

A new case of “Alaskapox” infection was discovered this year, following a first case in 2015. The virus, which appears to be transmitted by small mammals, currently, appears to be confined to Alaska for the time being.

Smallpox

Smallpox Virus

Should we fear a new global pandemic?

For the second time, a new virus from the smallpox family has struck an Alaska resident based in Fairbanks. She was infected with a virus called Alaska pox in August. A small grey lesion appeared on her left upper arm, followed by a rash four days later. The patient also reported lymphadenopathy, shoulder pain, fatigue, and night fever. The physicians performed a laboratory biopsy of the lesion, which confirmed a positive test for an orthopoxvirus first identified in another Fairbanks resident in 2015.

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An orthopoxvirus similar to smallpox

Orthopox viruses belong to the Chordopoxvirinae family of double-chain DNA viruses. They affect a large number of vertebrates, including humans. They are responsible for benign skin lesions but also for deadly diseases such as smallpox. The orthopoxvirus identified here is of the same type as the latter but appears to be much more harmless. The pain in the shoulder lasted for about two weeks, while the skin lesion healed after six weeks. In the previous case in 2015, however, it had lasted for more than six months.

A still-mysterious method of transmission

The Alaskapox viruses are apparently transmitted by small mammals. The patient has two cats that may have had contact with small wild animals and she also is in contact with several dogs from other family members,” the report says. She says, however, that she has not come into contact with wild animals. In the previous case in 2015, the patient lived with 12 small mammals on her property, but all tests were negative for the virus. The nature of transmission to humans is still unclear. “Given the geographical proximity of the two cases, it is likely that the virus came from an animal living in Alaska,” the experts say.

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Should we be concerned?

However, the authorities want to be reassuring. The two cases occurred five years apart, so human infection is likely to be occasional. So there is no reason for concern, emphasize the experts, who nevertheless call for vigilance among the inhabitants of Fairbanks. Residents are advised not to touch the animals, to avoid contact with droppings, and to wash their hands regularly.

However, in 2019, researchers pointed out two types of risk associated with the orthopoxvirus: a possible recurrence of smallpox and the appearance of other orthopoxviruses, facilitated by the lack of cross-immunity since the smallpox vaccination was discontinued. Three new types of orthopoxviruses have been discovered in the last 10 years, according to Eric Mooring, an expert from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who co-authored the newsletter on this new case.

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References

Second Case of Novel Orthopoxvirus Infection in a Fairbanks-area Resident

Novel Orthopoxvirus Infection in an Alaska Resident

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