What Is Alaskapox? Third and Fourth Known Cases of Virus Reported in Alaska

Alaska has reported the third and fourth known cases of a little-understood infection known as Alaskapox, including one in a young child.

Over the summer, two unrelated people from the Fairbanks area of Alaska visited an urgent care clinic with skin lesions, according to a bulletin from state health officials. Neither was named in the report.

The first was the patient identified as a "young child" in the bulletin, who had a lesion on the inside of her left elbow. Around four days after the lesion first appeared, she had a mild fever, and her underarm lymph nodes grew in size. Her fever and swelling subsided after around four days, and the lesion was "substantially" healed after three weeks of it first appearing.

The second patient was a middle-aged woman who had a lesion on her upper right inner thigh. Two days after she had the lesion, she had swollen lymph nodes and joint pain. After around three weeks, she was improving, but still had symptoms.

Samples were taken from their lesions, which tested positive for orthopoxviruses—one of which is Alaskapox. They also had similar a genetic make-up to past Alaskapox samples.

The bulletin stated that patterns are starting to emerge as more human Alaskapox cases are identified.

Neither of the patients had recently travelled out of the Fairbanks area, and they didn't know anyone with similar symptoms. It therefore seems likely that animals can infect humans, the bulletin said.

What Is Alaskapox?

Alaskapox is a species of orthopoxvirus, which infects mammals— including humans sometimes—and causes skin lesions. Alaskapox isn't closely related to the other known orthopoxviruses, but causes similar lesions.

The first ever case was identified in July 2015, and another in August 2020. The first pair of patients and one of the 2021 cases lived within about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of Fairbanks, while the other 2021 patient lived more than 25km away, according to the bulletin.

All known cases were found in people living in low-density housing in forested areas, where small mammals are "widespread."

Small mammals found at the home of the August 2020 patient and in other parts of Fairbanks had Alaskapox in animals, mostly voles.

State officials are working with the University of Alaska Museum and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the role played by small mammals in the spread of Alaskapox.

How Worried Should I Be?

The bulletin states: "Alaskapox virus infection may be more common than initially thought. However, available evidence continues to suggest that the public health impact of Alaskapox virus is limited.

"No evidence of human-to-human transmission has been documented and all four known infections were detected in the outpatient setting."

It advised doctors look out for cases, which could help build a deeper understanding of where it has occurred, risk factors and the nature of the illness.

vole alaskapox
A file photo of a vole. Voles have been found carrying Alaskapox. Getty Images