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Avian Flu in Seals

It was great to open up the internet this morning and see some cute pictures of baby seals. However, the news accompanying these sweet pictures was sad and alarming. Seals are now carrying the H3N8 flu virus, a new version of the Avian flu strain. This disease is not only causing the seal population great harm, but may pose a threat to humans as well.

Starting in September of 2011, scientists began noticing Harbor Seals with pneumonia and skin lesions off the coast from Maine to Massachusetts. Most of the seals observed were babies under the age of 6 months. Within a few months, the Harbor Seals began to show up on shore either dead or dying, and about 162 bodies were recovered.

Necropsies were done on 5 of the recovered animals and the findings showed that the seals had been infected with an avian flu strain. This outcome left scientists puzzled as to how the seals ended up with bird flu.

The amazing, yet scary, thing about Influenza A viruses is their ability to mutate. The seals, one way or another, caught the flu from birds in their area. This particular avian flu strain has descended from a strain identified in local waterfowl as early as 2002. Once inside the body of the seals, the strain mutated, making it capable of attacking mammalian respiratory systems. Many scientists are unsure if we will find this virus within the human population, but when it comes to Influenza A, most bets are off.

We have seen flu viruses mutate and attack human populations before. The latest outbreak was in 2009 with the aptly titled “Swine Flu.” This flu was a complete mutation to any other strain we had seen, as it included bits and pieces of bird, pig, and human flu, making it a sophisticated pandemic virus. This is not the only virus to mutate and infect other species.  Along with flu viruses, AIDS/HIV, SARS, rabies, brucellosis, tuberculosis, and leptospirosis are all examples of zoonotic diseases (illnesses that start in one species, but can infect another).

Upon further analysis of the virus, tests indicated that the new strain has the ability to target a human-specific protein within our respiratory system. There is also speculation that it could mutate and become another animal-specific flu - much like the flu virus that affects only horses and dogs – that stays with the host animal without mutation for a good length of time.

Researchers say that anytime a virus likes this comes along it will be an immediate emergency for wildlife conservation, as they scramble to keep wild animals safe and healthy. But when wildlife conservation is in this state over a flu virus, the human population should use it as an indicator that they too should be cautious and proactive.

As with any possible flu pandemic, it is important to be prepared. There are many ways to protect yourself, including the use of face masks and respirators, good hand washing practices, keeping hands away from your face, and limiting contact with others if you are sick. There are also flu products for children, like specially designed and fitted facemasks for kids, as well as easy hand washing solutions with alcohol based hand-sanitizers. Most flu viruses can spread rapidly when people are in close contact. Schools and offices are a flu virus’s dream, allowing for close contact and easy transference.

  Sources: Discovery News CNN Health Live Science via Yahoo News World Health Organization: Zoonosis and Veterinary Public Health
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