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Monday, 10 June, 2002, 17:57 GMT 18:57 UK
Viral threat to British seals
Seals on the North-east coast
The virus killed 28,000 seals during the last epidemic
Fears are growing that the seal population of the North Sea could be under threat from a deadly virus.

The bodies of more than 300 seals have been washed up on the Danish and Swedish coasts, raising fears of an epidemic of the distemper virus.

The highly contagious disease spreads quickly and is lethal to the common or harbour seals.

Marine biologists fear it is only a matter of time before the virus reaches British shores.

'Big worry'

The virus wiped out most of the colonies off the North-east coast 14 years ago.

Vets say the seals seldom die directly from distemper but because it weakens their defence systems, it leaves them vulnerable to other illnesses such as pneumonia.

It is rapidly spread through common seal populations by physical contact and there is no known effective vaccine or treatment.

Paul Bullimore, of Scarborough Sealife Centre, told BBC News Online that it was a big worry.

"Seals travel crazy distances. This virus will hit the UK, it will get here, it's just a case of when.

"It is especially worrying, especially if the outbreak is anything like last time."

Mr Bullimore said the outbreak could not hit at a worst time with the breeding season just around the corner.

More vulnerable

During breeding, the seals spend a lot of time out of the water, making them more vulnerable.

He said: "The breeding season starts soon which puts the seals at more risk as they spend two or three weeks out of the water to have their pups.

"After the breeding season, they begin to moult increasing the contact with each other."

The corpses of 60 seals have been washed up on the southern Swedish coast in recent weeks, while in Denmark 250 have been found.

Anna Roos, a biologist with the Stockholm Museum of Natural History, said: "We have been carrying out autopsies on each seal gathered but often they are so decomposed we cannot find anything.

"We have established beyond doubt that some suffered from an illness called "The Puppy" because it resembles canine distemper."

See also:

21 May 02 | Wales
15 Mar 02 | England
25 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
22 Oct 01 | Scotland
29 Aug 01 | Science/Nature
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