Smallpox was officially eradicated 44 years ago - ending a scourge which had claimed the lives of roughly 300 million people during the 20th century. But there remain other (admittedly, far less dangerous) poxviruses in the wild, including some with zoonotic capabilities.
Over the past 20 years, our attentions have been increasingly drawn to the Mpox virus (clade I & II) - which are endemic in central Africa - and which have been showing signs of evolving into a bigger threat (see 2016's EID Journal:Extended H-2-H Transmission during a Monkeypox Outbreak).
In February of 2022, just 4 months before the first international outbreak of clade II, we looked at another cautionary systematic review in PLoS NTD: The Changing Epidemiology of Human Monkeypox—A potential threat?.
Since May of 2022 more than 90,000 confirmed Mpox cases have been reported outside of Africa - although we have seen a sharp drop in cases reported since the fall of 2022.
Last November, the WHO warned that - for the first time - sexual transmission of clade I had been observed in the DRC, setting off fresh concerns over seeing a new round of transmission outside of Africa (see CDC HAN Advisory #00501).Far less ominous, over the past 9 years we've seen 4 human infections with a Novel Zoonotic Orthopoxvirus (Alaskapox) Near Fairbanks, along with a smattering of other case reports, including:
All of which brings us to a new report from Finland's Ruokavirasto, which describes a newly discovered poxvirus found in reindeer in Sweden and Norway. At this time, there is no evidence of it posing a zoonotic threat, but the Swedish Veterinary Agency does caution:
Reindeer poxvirus detected in Sweden and Norway
February 7, 2024
A new reindeer virus disease has been discovered in Sweden and Norway. The virus belonging to the deer pox virus (cervidpoxvirus) is tentatively called the reindeer pox virus and the disease is called reindeer pox. This is the first time that the deerpox virus has been detected in Europe. The Swedish State Veterinary Institute SVA has published the bulletin Nyupptäckt virus hos ren - SVA on its website , which tells about the discovery of the virus.
The virus was found in reindeer in the context of a research project in the Swedish provinces of Västerbotten, Norrbotten and Jämtland, and in Norway's Tromssa county. Reindeer pox has probably been present in reindeer even before the virus was discovered.
Reindeer pox virus causes skin sores and scabs mainly around the eyes and genitals, and has not been found to make reindeer seriously ill. Healing usually takes a few weeks, sometimes months. According to current information, the virus is not considered contagious to humans.
If scabs suggestive of the pox virus are observed in reindeer on the genital area of the head, the owner of the reindeer should contact the local veterinarian. Skin sores and scabies are very likely to be painful, so sick reindeer need treatment and special care. To prevent the spread of the disease, sick reindeer should be isolated from others and their feeding and other handling should be left to the last. Tools or feeding troughs used for handling sick reindeer should not be used with healthy reindeer.
In Finnish reindeer, there is an ulcerative inflammation of the mouth called stomatitis. In samples of oral scabies and ulcers, parapoxviruses belonging to the poxviruses have also been found: orf and false cowpox viruses. Infectious eye infections also occur in reindeer quite commonly, according to the Food Agency, but eye infection samples have been examined mainly for bacteria. Reindeer pox virus has not been detected in Finland, but it is possible that it also occurs here. The Food Agency hopes to receive samples from possible disease cases so that the presence of the virus in Finland can be mapped. The samples are taken by a veterinarian.
Moose pox viruses have previously been found in Canada in reindeer at the Toronto Zoo and in several deer in the USA, e.g. in white-tailed deer. The reindeer pox virus now found in Sweden and Norway is genetically different from previously characterized elk pox viruses, which may indicate that the virus found in reindeer does not originate from North America.
Specialist researcher Minna Nylund, animal health research unit
Admittedly, reindeer pox appears to pose very little threat to humans, but the more we learn about these viruses the better equipped we'll be to deal with other, potentially more dangerous poxviruses, that may emerge in the future.