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Sun Nov 10, 2013, 06:31 PM

Largest 'dolphin measles' outbreak in history kills 753

By Steve Nolan and Ashley Collman
8 November 2013

An outbreak of a measles-like virus affecting Bottlenose dolphins has become the largest in history - resulting in 753 dolphins washing up on beaches along the East Coast since July. And it's only getting worse. As Bottlenose herds migrate south for the winter, they may spread morbillivirus to local groups in Florida. The only other time an outbreak this bad happened was between August 1987 and April 1988 when the virus killed 740 dolphins. The current outbreak has already exceeded that death toll and if it plays out on the same time frame - it isn't even halfway over.

While the virus hasn't impacted other species of dolphins in the North and Mid-Atlantic, there is evidence that it may be killing some whales after the bodies of three humpback whales and two pygmy whales were recently found decaying on beaches. Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) haven't been able to confirm yet whether these whales were suffering from the same virus since their bodes were 'very decomposed'. Teri Rowles, of the NOAA Fishers Marine Mammal Stranding Response Program, said in a conference call today that the number of dead beached whales is 'slightly' elevated' from usual but that it's too early to know if it's an outbreak in the whale population.

Bottlenose dolphins continue to wash up on beaches on the East Coast, but more and more are showing up further south as the herds migrate to Florida for the winter. Researchers are now afraid that the outbreak will worsen and spread to local populations of dolphins in warmer waters. The virus spreads with contact and shared air. 'We don't know how this is going to play out,' Rowles said. Researchers believe that the virus may be spreading to humpback and pygmy whales, though it isn't impacting other species of dolphins.

NOAA researchers haven't been able to confirm a whale outbreak since the five stranded bodies were so decomposed, making it hard to analyze their tissue. Unfortunately, all researchers can do is watch the outbreak unfold. 'There is no vaccine that can be deployed for a large Bottlenose dolphin population or any cetacean species. Currently there is nothing that can be done to prevent the infection spreading, or prevent animals that get infected from having severe clinical disease,' she said. While the disease can't be spread to humans, it does have the potential to impact people. The virus leaves the dolphins susceptible to secondary diseases or viruses which have the possibility to infect humans if they come into contact with the rotting sea creatures on the beach.

The NOAA recommends that any beached dolphins or whales be reported to local stranding coordinators. 'What we're trying to prevent people from doing is push them back out,' Rowles said.


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NOAA, 2013 Bottlenose Dolphin Unusual Mortality Event in the Mid-Atlantic
Overview [/font size]

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (as amended), an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) has been declared for bottlenose dolphins in the Mid-Atlantic region from early July 2013 through the present. Elevated strandings of bottlenose dolphins have occurred in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

All age classes of bottlenose dolphins are involved and strandings range from a few live animals to mostly dead animals with many very decomposed. Many dolphins have presented with lesions on their skin, mouth, joints, or lungs.


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