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article imageA new strain of avian flu attacks baby seals, threatens humans

By Nancy Houser     Aug 1, 2012 in Environment
A new avian flu called H3N8 has caused the death of over 160 baby harbor seals. Abnormally high numbers of dead seals were found last September, with skin lesions and severe pneumonia. The seals were on the U.S. eastern coast from Maine to Massachusetts.
Avian flu has been around since 2002, circulating only in birds until it abruptly jumped to the baby seals along the New England coast, according to United Press International (UPI). The bodies of the baby seals were primarily infants, six months and younger. Scientists have been looking at another potential for the spread of the seal H3N8, and that is a growing shark population off the New England coast, according to the Business Insider.
The new virus is making the jump from birds to mammals in the short time of three months very dangerous. The Center for Infection and Immunity at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University conducted the pathogen screening of the afflicted seals. Director W. Ian Lipkin used sensitive diagnostic tools to identify the new strain of seal H3N8 virus.
New Zealand fur seals
New Zealand fur seals
Mike Lehmann
The published study was based on full genome sequencing and phylogenetic analysis. The scientific process found that H3N8 was responsible for the recent deaths of the baby seals, descended from an avian flu strain back in 2002 among North American waterfowl.
The implication of the study was that the transmission crossover from wild birds to seals was a recent event, not 2002's H1N1 and H5N1 avian flu. Testing had originally pointed at a new strain of the H3N8 virus being called seal H3N8, but instead the virus was able to attack mammalian respiratory tracts, like seals or possibly humans. "The virus has natural mutations that can make it more of a threat to mammals — including humans, according to the researchers," reported Live Science.
“HIV/AIDS, SARS, West Nile, Nipah and influenza are all examples of emerging infectious diseases that originated in animals,” said W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University. “Any outbreak of disease in domestic animals or wildlife, while an immediate threat to wildlife conservation, must also be considered potentially hazardous to humans." St. Louis KPLR 11
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