Seals under threat from virus again

CHRIS BISHOP Seals around East Anglia's coast are under threat from a fresh outbreak of a deadly virus. Thousands of the animals perished in 2002 and 1998 when phocine distemper spread across the North Sea

CHRIS BISHOP

Seals around East Anglia's coast are under threat from a fresh outbreak of a deadly virus.

Thousands of the animals perished in 2002 and 1998 when phocine distemper spread across the North Sea

Hundreds of dead and dying seals washed up on beaches around The Wash and coastline from Snettisham to Southwold at the height of the outbreak.

Forty-one of the animals were found dead around the island of Anholt, off the east coast of Denmark, over the weekend.

Both previous outbreaks began in the same area, and rapidly spread around the Danish and Dutch coastlines, reaching Norfolk within weeks.

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Norfolk Animal Hospital, near King's Lynn, was in the frontline of trying to save seals which were washed up on beaches.

Staff and volunteers worked around the clock as a constant stream of seals from across East Anglia were being brought in.

Last night centre manager Alison Charles said “We're just preparing for the worst, it's just horrible. It's very difficult for the animals and staff here who have to watch it.

“It's the start of the pupping season and this is something which affects the very young.”

PDV, which is similar to dog distemper, attacks the seals' immune system making them weak and vulnerable to infection.

Infected animals suffer breathing problems and discharge from the eyes and nose and frequently contract other infections such as pneumonia.

Common seals, which can travel hundreds of miles in a day, are most prone to infection and spreading the disease as they roam the seas. Their larger relative the grey seal does not appear as susceptible to the virus.

Barely a quarter of the sick and injured animals rescued by the RSPCA survive, while up to half of the 3,000 or so common seals which inhabit the Wash died in both previous outbreaks.

Kieran Copeland, animal care manager at Hunstanton Sea Life Sanctuary, said: “If PDV hits again we'll have to get ready for the worst.”

He added anyone finding a seal should call the sanctuary or the RSPCA and should not touch or attempt to move it.

While the disease itself does not infect humans, scientists fear it could spread to dogs.

A vaccine is being trialled in Holland but scientists at Defra say it would be impossible to treat every seal around our coasts.

But last night one expert said he did not expect an epidemic because in previous years infected seals had appeared as early as May and the disease had reached Britain when seals spend long periods hauled out and basking on dry land, where they spread the disease by coughing.

Paul Jepson, senior fellow with the Institute of Zoology said: “The risk to the UK is quite small but we need to be vigilant.”

Anyone finding a sick seal should call the Norfolk Animal Hospital on 01553 842645.

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