The emergence of Alaskapox, a virus with links to smallpox, cowpox, and mpox, has claimed its first known victim. The deceased, described as elderly, succumbed to the virus in late January after being hospitalised in November. What sets this case apart is the individual’s health condition: undergoing cancer treatment, his suppressed immune system made him particularly vulnerable.

Alaskapox, or AKPV, has been on the radar since 2015, with six reported cases, all relatively mild and confined to the Fairbanks area, approximately 483 kilometres (300 miles) from the Kenai Peninsula.

The circumstances surrounding the deceased man’s infection raise questions about the virus’s transmission. Living alone in a forested area with no recent travel history or close contact with sick individuals, the source of his infection remains elusive. Research suggests a potential zoonotic origin, with evidence of infection found in various small mammal species in the Fairbanks area, including red-backed voles and domestic pets.

Notably, the deceased man had been caring for a stray cat, which tested negative for Alaskapox but regularly hunted small mammals and scratched him. Experts speculate that the virus may have been present on the cat’s claws, leading to transmission during scratching. The man’s first symptom, a red lesion, appeared near the armpit, precisely where the cat had scratched him.

Health authorities urge caution and recommend preventive measures. These include covering affected areas with bandages, thorough handwashing, avoiding sharing clothing that may have come into contact with lesions, and laundering clothing and sheets separately.