Seals – those cute, semi-aquatic marine mammals hunted for generations by humans may be about to wreak their revenge. While we don’t want to get into the pros and cons of the cull, we would like to warn our readers of a new strain of flu found in New England harbor seals.
According to experts, seal flu could potentially threaten people as well as wildlife. In a report just published online in mBio, scientists from several organizations, including Columbia University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest that seal flu could lead to another pandemic just as we saw with bird and swine flu.
“There is a concern that we have a new mammalian-transmissible virus to which humans haven’t been exposed yet. It’s a combination we haven’t seen in disease before,” said Anne Moscona MD, professor of pediatrics and of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College.
“A dangerous virus infecting mammals increases the risk to us – not by direct infection – but by evolutionary development of even more riskier strains,” explained Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y.
Although transmission via direct contact between humans and harbor seals is unlikely, the virus could find other ways to get to people. For example, the strain might pass from seals to birds, expand its presence in the environment. And because seal flu is able to target a protein found in the human respiratory tract, it may have the potential to mutate in ways that make it easily passed to or between humans.
The researchers analyzed the DNA of a virus linked to the death of 162 harbor seals in 2011 off the coasts of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. Five autopsies revealed that the seals died from infection with a type of flu known as H3N8.
And we suggest for this year at least you might be better off diving with dolphins than swimming with seals!