Deadly Dolphin Disease Spreads South, Infects Whales

An infection which caused bottlenose dolphins to beach themselves on Long Island over the summer has now been found as far south as Florida.

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The disease which killed over 400 bottlenose dolphins around Long Island and the rest of the mid-Atlantic region over the summer has spread. Cetacean morbillivirus, a virus similar to measles, was identified as the culprit in the mass die-off by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration toward the end of August, and was also the cause of a similar event in the late 80s.

Since the initial identification the death toll has risen to 753 dolphins, making this the worst outbreak of cetacean morbillivirus ever recorded. As herds of dolphins have travelled south for the winter, additional colonies have been put at risk of contracting the disease through contact with the infected individuals all along the East Coast. Diseased dolphins and an increase in beachings have already been reported in Florida.

To make matters worse, the disease has also been discovered in two species of whale—thee humpback and two pygmy whales have tested positive for morbillivirus so far according to preliminary tests conducted by NOAA. The disease is normally quite rare in whales, but a slight elevation in whale beachings in New York may be cause for concern. Additional testing by NOAA will be necessary to determine whether the virus is what killed the infected creatures, and that work will not be particularly easy as most tissue samples are already badly decomposed.

If the illness continues to spread at the same rate as the 1987-88 outbreak, during which 740 deaths were recorded, it is only about half done running its course and there is nothing which can be done to stem its spread.

“There is no vaccine that can be deployed for a large bottlenose dolphin population or any cetacean species,” Terri Rowles, a NOAA Fishers Marine Mammal Stranding Response Program member, told reporters on a teleconference call Friday. “Currently there is nothing that can be done to prevent the infection spreading, or prevent animals that get infected from having severe clinical disease.”

Humans are not likely to contract the disease if they come in contact with a dolphin, however a weakened immune system can make victims more susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections which can cross species more easily. NOAA is encouraging anyone who finds a beached whale or dolphin to contact them at 1-877-WhaleHelp for medical assistance rather than attempt pushing the animals back into the water.

[Source: NOAA via NBC]