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1988: Mysterious seal disease spreads

Scientists fear a disease which has killed more than 6,000 seals in the North Sea and the Baltic has now reached British waters.

In the last two weeks diseased seals have been found in an area of the North Sea off East Anglia in the east of England.

It has the largest colony of phoca vitulina - commonly known as harbor seals - in the North Sea.

Scientists are conducting tests to see if it is the same illness which is killing seals elsewhere.

The disease was first identified in April in seals around the tiny island of Anholt in the Baltic.

By July it had spread through the Danish, German and Dutch sectors of the Wadden Sea - an area of the North Sea home to about 10,000 seals - to the coast of Norway.

Sanctuaries

The deaths of so many seals - 20% of the population in the North Sea and the Baltic so far - is leaving their pups vulnerable to predators.

Animal welfare groups have rescued many and taken them to seal sanctuaries where they will stay until old enough to fend for themselves.

An emergency conference in London to try to find ways of fighting the epidemic has been organised by the environmental group, Greenpeace.

It will be attended by scientists with direct experience of treating infected seals.

They hope to pool their knowledge to come up with a cure for the disease becfore the animals are threatened with extinction.

Examination of dead seals has revealed two viruses so far.

One is a herpes virus; the other is similar to the virus which causes polio in humans.

In Context
The disease was finally identified as a virus spread by the migration of harp seals from the Arctic Ocean.

By June 1989 the disease - named phocine distemper virus (PDV) by scientists - had killed 17,000 of the harbor seals in the North Sea and the Baltic.

Even before the outbreak scientists had warned harbor seals were at risk.

About 80% of female seals in the Baltic Sea were sterile as a result of chemical pollution.

And their numbers in the North Sea had been severely reduced by seal hunts.

In 1990 Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands signed an agreement to protect Wadden Sea seals since when their numbers have recovered.

In May 2002 the disease returned to Europe - by October the number of dead seals had reached 18,300.


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