Health Watch: Fairbanks physician identifies new cases of “Alaskapox” in Interior Alaska

Published: Sep. 22, 2021 at 4:23 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - A Fairbanks physician has identified two new cases of Alaskapox, a new virus that for now seems to only exist in Interior Alaska.

According to Dr. Zachary Werle, a physician with Tanana Valley Clinic First Care, there have only been four cases of Alaskapox identified, with two being discovered this year.

“Alaskapox is what is being described as a novel orthopox virus,” Dr. Werle explained “Orthopox is a specific subset of viruses and this is a newly discovered, previously unknown viral illness that was first identified here in Fairbanks in 2015. It has a distant relation to other pox viruses like cowpox or smallpox.”

Dr. Werle continued, “There’s only been four cases, but the four cases have been pretty similar with a single, painful, skin lesion surrounded by redness and skin inflammation. Several of the patients have had lymphangitis, or inflammation of the lymphatic tissues, as well as fever, malaise, a generalized feeling unwell and enlargement of the lymph nodes.”

According to Dr. Werle, the virus does not appear to pose a major health risk to community members. “I think that’s the one take home point for people is reassurance that although this is new and rare, it’s unlikely to impact large numbers of people here,” Dr. Werle remakerd. “The second thing is that several of these patients presented with what they thought was a spider bite. So if someone were to have new painful skin lesion that looks like something different from anything that they’ve experienced before, talking to their doctor about it and having it identified to make sure that we know what we’re dealing with is a good idea.”

Dr. Werle also said that the discovery of a new viral illness itself is both a rare and fascinating find. “My understanding is, in the past decade there have only been three new orthopoxviruses detected, and so that makes it unusual in and of itself. Currently, the four cases identified were all here in Interior Alaska. The CDC has done extensive testing on the virus, and they’ve determined that based on the lineage of the virus, that it’s really unrelated to other orthopoxviruses, making it a unique entity in and of itself.”

Currently the leading cause of transmission seems to be from small mammals according to Dr. Werle.

“The CDC and the Alaska State Department of Epidemiology have done animal trapping here in Interior Alaska and around the areas where the patients who were infected lived,” he said, “and they have identified the virus in several species of small mammals including voles, shrews, and squirrels. So there’s likely a spread from an animal vector.”

Dr. Werle added, “There have been no cases of human to human transmission, so I think that’s one assuring thing so far, is that we have not actually seen it spread from one individual to another. I think based on just the unusual nature of this presentation with only four cases is that it doesn’t appear to be highly infectious or highly contagious - and the thought is, potentially, it’s spread either directly or indirectly from small mammals or rodents.”

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