Deadly Dolphins Measles Arrives in Florida
For almost 2 years, scientists had been cautiously relieved that a deadly viral outbreak blamed for the deaths of scores of Atlantic
bottlenose dolphins up and down the [US] East Coast had not reached the [Florida] Keys. That tepid calm ended this week.
A necropsy performed on an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin that died on 7 Nov 2014 after washing up sick on the Bahia Honda State Park [Big Pine
Key, Florida] beach earlier that day returned positive for morbillivirus -- a measles-like disease that is highly contagious among sea mammals.
According to federal fisheries scientists, this means the outbreak area of the virus, which has killed 1569 dolphins from New York to
Central Florida since July 2013, now includes the Atlantic side of the Keys. And the entire Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay side of Florida is
now considered a "surveillance area" for the outbreak, said Laura Engleby, a biologist and chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration's [NOAA] southeast marine mammal branch.
The Keys are home to several captive marine mammal facilities where dolphins are kept in enclosed lagoons supplied with seawater directly from the ocean.
Since morbillivirus is so contagious, NOAA has informed the US Department of Agriculture, the federal agency with jurisdiction over marine mammal parks, that morbillivirus is now in the Keys.
The virus affects marine mammals' lungs, neurological systems, and immune systems. There has never been a case a human catching
morbillivirus from a marine mammal, Engleby said. But associated byproduct illnesses can be passed, and that is why scientists are
warning people not to touch stranded mammals they might see on the
beach. People should also not let their pets approach sick mammals.
The few dolphins and whales with morbillivirus that scientists find
alive usually show signs of respiratory problems, brain damage, and
other illnesses that result from their weakened immune systems caused
by the disease. They are usually in such bad shape that veterinarians
euthanize the mammals even before tests are conducted.
"Mammals suspected of having morbillivirus are not candidates for
rehabilitation," Engleby said.
NOAA biologists theorize those mammals could have had the same strain
that killed 742 dolphins on the East Coast from August 1987 to April
1988. This would indicate an outbreak could inflict damage for years
before dying out.