Seal hospital braces for deaths as virus takes hold

15th Aug 2002 Story: www.guardian.co.uk

Conservationists are bracing themselves for the deaths of thousands of seals after their worst fears were confirmed in the form of a highly virulent virus.

The discovery of phocine distemper virus in tissue samples taken from dead seals washed up on the Norfolk coast has signalled the return of the disease to British shores and fuelled concerns that an epidemic is on its way.

The highly infectious virus, which attacks the immune system and leaves the animals susceptible to pneumonia and other infections, has already killed more than 3,000 seals off northern Europe this summer.

It last hit British shores in 1988 when it wiped out half the common seal population in the Wash, off the north Norfolk coast, and there is still no known cure.

The RSPCA said it had only been a matter of time before the virus spread to Britain but it confirmed that contingency plans were already in place for the worst possibilities.

Ian Robinson, veterinary manager at the RSPCA Norfolk wildlife hospital, said: "It's early days and we hope the virus is not as disastrous as last time. However, it is a vicious virus, there is no treatment for it and no prevention for animals in the wild."

Staff began to suspect an outbreak was imminent in July after seeing a big increase in the numbers of sick seal pups brought in for treatment and an unusual number of dead adults washed up, he said.

"They were coming in sicker than normal and we suspected the virus was here. It was a gut feeling and now we know for sure. This time it seems to be coming slower and it is possible that more seals will survive but we are going to see over the next couple of months at least a few hundred deaths."

He added: "How long it goes on and how many lives it will claim is not clear, but if we get away with a couple of hundred I think we will be lucky."

The hospital, which is the focal point for treatment of affected seals, is waiting for results of samples taken from 19 pups in the isolation unit, an animal equivalent of intensive care.

"We have a feeling that just about all the seals we now have will have been exposed to the virus," Mr Robinson said.

The hospital has specialist seal treatment facilities and was established in response to the 1988 outbreak which had to be dealt with in a makeshift centre in an old bus shelter. It is now the biggest seal rescue and rehabilitation centre in the UK.

In the past two months more than 50 common seals have been brought in for treatment, double the average number for this time of year, and more than half of those have died.

The most seriously ill seals are kept in the isolation room in cell-like chambers where they are nursed and monitored round the clock. Most are fed through a stomach tube because they are too weak to eat and the majority are suffering from gum infections which leave their mouths bloody and sore.

There is rasping and coughing as the pups struggle with respiratory infections which could kill them in hours.

"We are trying to nurse them through it and just hope they pull through, but it is very frustrating to watch," Alison Charles, the hospital's manager, said.

"The staff here are excellent. They are working their socks off and morale is pretty good so far. We know what we are going to have to face but we cope with disasters every day here and we will just deal with this. We are dreading it but we will get on with it and get through it."

ยท The public were yesterday asked to use a hotline to report any dead or sick seals immediately: 0871 244-7999.