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Bird Flu May Have Caused Seal Strandings in Maine

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The highly pathogenic avian influenza strain that has whipped through flocks of domestic poultry and wild birds this 12 months may be in charge for a spike in seal strandings in Maine, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

Samples from 4 recently stranded seals — all of which died or were sick enough to require euthanasia — tested positive for the virus.

The strain, officially generally known as Eurasian H5N1, primarily affects birds. After causing outbreaks in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, the virus arrived in North America late last 12 months and quickly spread to industrial poultry farms and along migratory bird routes.

The recent outbreaks involving the newest version of the virus have taken a much greater toll on wild birds than previous cycles did. And that has put carnivores and scavengers that feed on wild birds and their carcasses in danger. Scientists have now found the virus in a wide range of wild mammals in North America, including foxes, bobcats, skunks and raccoons.

“The seal is the primary marine mammal that we’ve seen on the spillover end,” Dr. Julianna Lenoch, a national wildlife disease program coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said at a news briefing on Wednesday. “But this shouldn’t be unexpected to have bird flu move into mammalian species every so often.”

Employees with Marine Mammals of Maine, a company that responds to reports of stranded sea creatures, began noticing an unusually high variety of stranded seals last month. From May 10 to July 4, 92 gray and harbor seals were reported stranded in Maine.

Lots of the seals were found dead. The present rate of dead seal strandings is roughly 3 times as high as normal, in line with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Other stranded seals were sick, with symptoms that included lethargy, sneezing and coughing. Some also had seizures — a symptom that has been reported in fox kits infected with avian influenza.

Marine Mammals of Maine sent samples from eight stranded seals to Tufts University for laboratory testing, Lynda Doughty, the organization’s executive director, said on the briefing. 4 tested positive for the virus.

A lot of the strandings to date have been reported in mid-to-southern Maine. “But there’s the potential for this to spread across our coast as live animals move,” said Ainsley Smith, the coordinator for stranded marine mammals at N.O.A.A.’s Greater Atlantic regional fisheries office.

Viruses have been chargeable for other mass stranding events amongst marine mammals, and former versions of avian influenza have caused fatal outbreaks in seals. Scientists suspect that the seals, like other mammals, catch the virus after eating infected birds.

Seals can spread not less than some versions of the flu to other seals. Nonetheless, there shouldn’t be yet any evidence that this has happened in Maine, said Bryan Richards, the emerging disease coordinator on the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center.

“With all the scavenging mammals, and now with seals, I don’t think now we have any evidence in any respect suggesting that every individual animal is anything aside from, literally, a dead-end host,” he said.

Although the chance to humans stays low, the infection of mammals increases the chances that the virus could mutate in ways in which make it more more likely to pose a danger to people. Versions of avian flu which were isolated from seals during previous outbreaks have shown signs of adaptation to mammals.

Prior to now, similar versions of bird flu have tended to peter out in the summertime, when temperatures rise. It is simply too soon to say whether that can occur this 12 months, Dr. Lenoch said: “This particular avian influenza is acting a bit of bit different, so we’re going to stay on high alert.”

Within the meantime, officials advisable that folks — and their pets — stay a secure distance away from seals and other marine mammals and report stranded animals to the local wildlife authorities.

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