Both people were diagnosed after receiving urgent care in a Fairbanks-area clinic. One was a child with a sore on the left elbow, along with fever and swollen lymph nodes. And the other was an unrelated middle-aged woman with a pox mark on her leg, swollen lymph nodes, and joint pain. In both cases, symptoms improved within 3 weeks.
This isn’t the first time the so-called Alaskapox virus has been detected in the region. In 2015, a woman living near Fairbanks turned up at her doctor’s office with a single reddened pox-like mark on her upper arm and a feeling of fatigue.
Sampling of the pox mark showed that it was caused by a previously unidentified virus of the same family as smallpox and cowpox.
Five years later, another woman showed up with similar signs and symptoms, and her pox also proved to be the result of what public health experts started calling the Alaskapox virus.
In both cases, the women recovered completely.
Public health sleuths figured out that in three of the four cases, the patients lived in a home with a cat or cats, and one of these cats was known to hunt small animals.
Experts already knew that cats mingling in cow pastures and sickened by cattle virus had helped cowpox make the leap from bovines to humans. And just as in the case of cowpox, they suspected that cats might again be spreading this new virus to people, too.
All four of the infected people lived in sparsely populated areas amid forests. Officials laid animal traps where some of the affected people lived and identified the virus in several species of small wild animals.
The animals that turned up most often with Alaskapox were small mouse-like voles. The rodents with rounded muzzles are known for burrowing in the region. And scientists suspect the Alaskapox virus makes its way from these wild animals to humans through their pet cats or possibly by direct exposure outdoors.
None of the four people identified so far with Alaskapox knew each other or interacted, so officials also suspect that there are more cases going unrecognized, possibly because the symptoms are mild or nonexistent.
There are no documented cases of person-to-person transmission of Alaskapox, according to public health officials monitoring the small number of cases. But other pox viruses can spread by direct contact with skin lesions, so clinicians are recommending that people cover wounds with bandages. Three of the people with Alaskapox mistook their lesions at first for a bite from a spider or insect.
A version of this article first appeared on.