Two more cases of the emerging Alaskapox virus were recorded in the Fairbanks area this summer.
These are the third and fourth cases of the virus on record, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services. The first two cases, recorded in 2015 and 2020, were also in the Fairbanks area.
Alaskans who contracted Alaskan smallpox did not suffer from serious illness and have recovered, but the single virus remains the subject of a multi-party investigation, as health officials and researchers attempt to determine its cause and for how long it has been circulating.
They are looking for role models.
Dr Eric Mooring, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the four residents of the Fairbanks area diagnosed with Alaskan smallpox had unique small skin lesions.
“It varied a bit in color, but reddish-whitish and sometimes even became a sort of darker brownish tint,” said Mooring, who is part of a team investigating Alaskan smallpox. “And then I think the other thing that’s noticeable is that these lesions were associated with the surrounding redness. And then the patients had swollen lymph nodes and pain in a nearby part of the body that has pain. lymph nodes.
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Mooring said the swelling and pain went away within days to weeks. The four known cases have occurred in people living in “low-density housing in wooded areas,” according to a report from the Ministry of Health. They also all occurred during the summer months, and three of the four infected individuals had cats.
“But we don’t know if cats have a role in the spread of this virus,” Mooring said. “So that’s something we’re still looking at, but it’s a similarity.”
Mooring says small mammals are suspected of carrying the virus. An ongoing trapping and testing project has found evidence of this in shrews, voles and squirrels.
“Both proofs of the virus genes, so that would be a sign of a current infection, and then we also found antibodies in some mammals, so that would be a sign of a past infection,” he said.
Yet, Mooring said, no firm conclusions have been drawn about the role of animals in the spread of Alaskan smallpox, so public health recommendations are fairly common.
“Avoid touching wildlife, try to keep small mammals out of your home, wash your hands, and avoid animal droppings whenever possible,” he said.
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Mooring said it is not clear whether the virus is confined to the Fairbanks area and whether additional cases have occurred that have not been reported.
He said identifying the Alaskapox virus is important because only a few new viruses are discovered in the world each year. The CDC works with local healthcare providers, the Alaska State Virology Laboratory, and the University of Alaska Museum of the North.
“Their mammalogy experts have been a key part of our work to understand the virus in small mammals of the interior of Alaska,” he said.
Northern Mammal Museum curator Link Olson said researchers were still doing baseline surveys “to get a feel for the extent of this virus in local mammalian fauna.”
Olson said the two new Alaskapox cases have sped up the trapping project.
“And the idea is to trap as close as possible to the patient’s home. And then to try to sample in a similar habitat nearby as a sort of control, ”Olson said.
Olson said the Alaskapox discovery underscores the intersection of animal and human health.
“As the pandemic has shown us, we are all interconnected,” Olson said. “And that sounds a little woo-woo. But it’s true. And scientists like me need to sort of take a more holistic approach to what we’re doing just to make sense of it all. “