MORBILLIVIRUS INFECTION has been confirmed in the carcase of a harbour seal, one of four found dead at the Aran Islands. Dr Jimmy Dunne and Jane Gilleran of the Zoology Department, NUI Galway examined carcases reported by Dr Michael O Connell at Inishmore on 21st September. They forwarded tissue samples for analysis to Dr. Seamus Kennedy, Veterinary Sciences Division of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for Northern Ireland.
That analysis has confirmed the presence of morbillivirus infection in tissues of one of the seals. This is the first confirmation of morbillivirus infection in a seal in Ireland during the current European epidemic.
About 15,000 seals have died in the waters of continental Europe in the past five months including approximately 1,900 along the east coast of England. Last week, tests carried out in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development laboratory in Belfast indicated that the virus had spread to the seal population on the east coast of Scotland.
The last major seal epidemic hit northern Europe in 1988 and killed over 18,000 seals, including hundreds along the coast of Northern Ireland. No cases were evidently identified from the Republic at that time. It is likely that Irish seals now have little immunity against the virus and are at risk of large-scale mortality.
Previous surveys have estimated the total number of Irish harbour seals to be about 2000. The Zoology Department at NUI Galway has been studying the biology of Harbour seals in the Galway Bay area since 2000 and has calculated its population to number at least 400 individuals.
The seal virus has never been reported to cause illness in humans. However, dying or dead seals may be more accessible to people resulting in an increased risk of infection by other organisms carried by seals, particularly through infected bites or wounds. Members of the public are therefore advised not to approach sick seals or carcases which may be washed ashore during the present high tides. It is likely that the seal virus could cause illness in dogs that have not been vaccinated against distemper. Dogs should therefore be kept away from sick seals or carcases. Sightings of carcases should be reported to either Duchas (Tel. 01-6473000) or the Irish Seal Sanctuary (Tel. 01-8354370).
Information from:Máire Mhic Uidhir, Press Officer, NUI, Galway. Tel.091 750418