Diseases with quite alarming symptoms have popped up in the US (Picture: Getty/Metro)
Recent news from the US has been quite unsettling for disease-watchers, with the emergence of an apparent new threat in Alaska and the reappearance of a scarily familiar one in Oregon.
At the end of January, an elderly man became the first victim of Alaskapox, which was first identified clinically in an adult in 2015.
The virus, which causes skin lesions, swollen lymph nodes and muscle pain, is believed to mainly circulate among small mammals – but can be transferred to humans.
Officials said the man who died last month had been caring for a stray cat in his home, and may have contracted the disease when he was scratched.
Meanwhile, health authorities in Oregon last week announced the state’s first human case of bubonic plague in almost a decade.
The person in question, a resident of Deschutes County, had their case ‘identified and treated in the earlier stages of the disease’, meaning there was ‘little risk to the community’.
Unfortunately, they also appeared to have caught the illness from a cat – although this time, it was their pet rather than a stray.
Despite the small scale of these health scares, concerns about potential outbreaks are understandable after the past few years.
This is what an Alaskapox lesion looks like 10 days after the onset of symptoms (Picture: Alaska Department of Health)
So just how worried should people in the UK be about these diseases?
Metro.co.uk asked Dr Colin Michie, associate dean of research and exchange in the School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).
He said Alaskapox is a ‘new member of a very large family of pox viruses’, and it only had its genetic structure reported for the first time in 2019.
It’s one of several new pox viruses that have been identified in the past 25 years, he added.
The cases of bubonic plague and Alaskapox appear to have both been contracted from cats (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
But there’s no need to panic about cases popping up on this side of the Atlantic.
Dr Michie said: ‘It is unlikely Alaskapox will spread to the UK, as it appears to be confined to one geographical area of Alaska.
‘So far, there is thought to have been no human to human spread, and British biosecurity routines should prevent its arrival here.’
As for bubonic plague, England in particular has a rather discouraging record of mitigation: one epidemic killed 40% to 60% of the country’s population in the late 1340s, while another in the 1660s is thought to have killed around a fifth of the people living in London at the time.
Oregon has demonstrated the disease’s ability to re-emerge after lying dormant for a while, which Dr Michie explains is down to the fact plague bacteria can be preserved in soil for many years before a burrowing rodent gets infected.
Bubonic plague is caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria (Picture: Getty Images/Science Photo Libra)
There’s no chance of the threat going away any time soon – bubonic plague (also known as the Black Death) has been making humans ill for more than 5,000 years.
However, our expert once again provided some reassurance for Brits, saying: ‘It is unlikely this plague will come to the UK.
‘We have a number of careful biosecurity mechanisms to prevent the entry of infected mammals and their fleas, so the danger remains relatively low.’
In any case, the same event that has made us wary of new disease threats – the Covid pandemic – has also strengthened our approach to tackling them.
Dr Michie said Covid ‘greatly changed the knowledge we have on what works effectively and what does not’ when managing an airborne virus.
Just how prepared we are for taking on another threat of that scale remains to be seen, but for the moment, it seems unlikely we’ll be tested by the latest pox and plague.
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