Seal virus fears grow
A virus that killed thousands of seals in the 1980s could return to
Scottish waters, experts have warned. The warning came after 5 seals washed
up off the east coast of England were found to have died from the phocine
distemper virus (PDV).
The last outbreak of PDV in 1988 killed an estimated 13,000 [seals] in
Scotland, as well as thousands more in other parts of Britain and northern
Europe. Mark Steward, curator of marine mammals at the Scottish Sea Life
Sanctuary in Oban, Argyll and Bute, said a similar number could die this
year. The spread of the virus [in northern Europe] has followed a similar
pattern to the 1988 outbreak, which slashed the seal population by up to 60
percent in some waters.
Mr Steward said: "I think everyone needs to brace themselves for the fact
that it will definitely arrive in Scotland. "The spread from the Baltic to
the east coast via the Waddenzee in Holland has followed exactly the same
time scale as last time. Last time it arrived in the UK in July and dead
seals were being washed up in Orkney at the beginning of August, so we
would expect PDV to spread to Scotland within the next month."
He added that the erratic progress of the disease in Scotland -- the east
and west coasts were struck almost simultaneously -- made it hard to
predict how it would develop this year. The governments in Scotland and the
UK have already invested GBP 250,000 [USD 384,300]in a project to learn
more about the virus, which was unknown at the time of the 1988 outbreak.
It took 12 years for the seal population to return to its pre-1988 figures,
but Scotland's seals were less badly hit than those in other parts of
Europe, whose immune systems had been damaged by organo-chlorine pollution.
Mr Steward said the disease posed no health risk to humans, but warned
people to stay away from dead or sick seals. The illness is related to
canine distemper, meaning dogs can act as carriers and unwittingly pass it
on to healthy seals, although they will not be infected themselves.
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Seal colony expected to escape virus
Volunteers at a marine sanctuary have expressed hope that a killer virus
will not hit a grey seal community in west Wales.
Terry Leadbetter, who runs Welsh Marine Life Rescue in Milford Haven, hopes
the colony of grey seals living in waters off Pembrokeshire will be spared
from the disease, which is spreading across northern Europe.
The illness -- caused by the phocine distemper virus (PDV) -- was confirmed
to have reached the UK's shores on Wed 14 Aug 2002, after tests on 5 seals
in southeast England [were completed]. It has already claimed the lives of
2000 seals in Denmark, Sweden and Norway since it was first spotted in May.
The west Wales coast is home to one of the largest populations of grey
seals in Europe. "During the last outbreak, the breed of seals most
affected was the common seal," said Mr Leadbetter. "Out of 18 000 seals
which died as a result of the virus in 1988, only 350 were grey seals. "The
common seal is much more susceptible to the disease than the grey seal. We
are mildly optimistic that the distemper virus won't affect the seals in
the waters around Pembrokeshire because no common seals live here. Only
grey seals inhabit the waters in this area. So far, out of the 2000 seals
which have died from the virus this year, we are not aware of any evidence
to say that any grey seals have been infected," he added.
The virus, which is not harmful to humans, causes symptoms of lethargy and
runny eyes and nose in seals who contract it. It is a highly contagious
disease -- similar to dog distemper -- and attacks the immune system of the
animal, usually leading to death by pneumonia.
"Naturally we are very concerned and will be monitoring the situation,
particularly with the pupping season approaching. "But we are remaining
hopeful," said Mr Leadbetter.