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FAQs on Pinniped Morbillivirus and the Mid-Atlantic UME

Q: What is morbillivirus?

Pinniped Morbillivirus fact sheet [pdf]

A: Morbilliviruses are in the family Paramyxoviridae. Specific morbilliviruses cause measles (in people), canine distemper (in dogs, coyotes, wolves, and seals), rinderpest (in cattle), and peste-des-petits-ruminants (goats and sheep).  A morbillivirus has recently been associated with kidney disease in cats.  Five types of morbilliviruses have been detected in marine mammals in the United States: canine distemper virus (CDV) and phocine distemper virus (PDV) in seals and sea otters, and dolphin morbillivirus (DMV) and pilot whale morbillivirus (PWMV), and Longman’s beaked whale morbillivirus (LBWMV), which are collectively referred to as cetacean morbillivirus (CMV) in porpoises, dolphins and whales.

Q: What are the symptoms of phocine distemper virus in seals?

A: Phocine distemper virus affects the lungs, brain and immune system.  Sick animals may appear thin, have respiratory difficulties due to pneumonia, and/or exhibit abnormal behavior.  Seals with clinical morbillivirus infection have exhibited the following symptoms including skin lesions, pneumonia, brain infections and secondary infections.

Q: How long has phocine distemper virus been around?

A: Phocine distemper virus was first detected in the late 1980s in wild seal populations when disease outbreaks occurred in the North Sea and Europe.

Q: Has phocine distemper virus ever been detected in seals along the Atlantic coast before?

A: Yes, phocine distemper virus was first detected in a few seals stranding along Long Island, New York in 1992.  Additionally, phocine distemper virus was detected in harbor, harp, hooded and gray seals stranding in the 2006 during an unusual mortality event along the U.S. east coast.  The 2006 mortality event occurred along the Atlantic Coast and spanned the region from Maine to Massachusetts with over 500 seals stranding during that event (July to October 2006).  The cause of the 2006 event was determined to be phocine distemper virus infection (Earle et al. 2011).

Q: How does the virus spread among seals?

A: Morbilliviruses are usually spread through inhalation of respiratory particles or direct contact between animals, including between mothers and young. Animals can also be exposed to the virus through other entryways such as the eyes, mouth, stomach, skin wounds, and the urogenital tract.

Q: Can seals become infected by other morbilliviruses besides phocine distemper?

A:  Seals and sea lions have been infected with canine distemper virus in the wild and in captivity (Kennedy et al. 2000, Barret et al. 2004).  Additionally, one case of cetacean morbillivirus infection has been reported for a seal in captivity in the Italy (Mazzariol et al., 2013). However, there have been no documented cases of seals being infected with cetacean morbillivirus in the wild.  Currently a few seals stranding along the Mid-Atlantic coast are being tested to rule-out morbillivirus infections in these species during the Mid-Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin UME.  Those test results are pending. To date, all seals tested were negative for dolphin morbillivirus and only one seal was positive for canine distemper virus.

Updated: January 8, 2015