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 Press release - Canine Distemper Virus Identified As Cause Of Caspian Seal Epizootic (UNDP CEP)

 Press release date: 19.09.2000

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Thousands of Caspian seals (Phoca caspica) have died in the Caspian Sea since April 2000. An international team of scientists, working as part of the Caspian Environment Programmes Ecotoxicology Project (ECOTOX), has now concluded that canine distemper virus (CDV) infection was the primary cause of the epizootic. The results of these investigations have been subjected to peer-review and details will be published in a forthcoming issue of the scientific journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Numerous possible contributors to seal mortality have been investigated in the past, including pollution from land-based sources, climatic effects such as absence of ice in the North Caspian Sea, parasitic worms, and other disease vectors. In 1997, a single Caspian seal was determined to have canine distemper virus infection, but seal disease could not be attributed directly to this virus at that time. The present study was designed to examine recent massive mortality in Caspian seals with these various causes in mind.

Scientists from the Institute of Zoology, Regents Park, London; the Seal Rehabilitation and Research Center, Pieterburen, The Netherlands; the Sea Mammal Research Unit, University of St. Andrews, Scotland; and the Tara Seal Research Centre, Portaferry Northern Ireland, visited areas of seal mortality in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan during May and June 2000 to carry out post-mortem examinations and collect tissue and blood samples from dead seals. They worked in collaboration with staff from the Geological Institute of the Azerbaijan Republic Academy of Sciences, Baku, Azerbaijan, the Laboratory of Virus Ecology, Institute of Microbiology and Virology, Almaty, Kazakhstan and Akademgorodok, Institute of Zoology, Almaty, Kazakhstan. Blood and tissue samples, collected from dead seals found on the Caspian coasts of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, were then analysed in the Veterinary Sciences Division of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Belfast, Northern Ireland, the Institute of Animal Health, Pirbright, England and the Institute of Virology, Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Algal toxin analysis was performed at Dundee University, Scotland; bacteriology was performed at the Scottish Agricultural College Veterinary Laboratory, Inverness, Scotland;

Microscopic lesions, characteristic of canine distemper, were found in the seal tissues and infection with CDV was confirmed by serological and molecular methods. These findings in seals from several geographically dispersed regions of the Caspian Sea provide strong evidence that CDV infection was the primary cause of the epizootic. Other environmental factors may have contributed to the deaths, including pollution from land-based sources, warm winter temperatures which inhibited ice formation, and so on. However, the CDV appears to be the primary factor causing the majority of deaths in the epizootic.

Canine distemper virus is a member of the morbillivirus group of viruses. In 1987-1988 it caused high mortality in Baikal seals (Phoca siberica) in Lake Baikal in Siberia and is suspected of having caused a die-off of crabeater seals in Antarctica in 1955. Other morbilliviruses have caused several major epizootics among aquatic mammal populations in various regions of the world in recent years.

Further studies are underway to determine the potential role of pollution in the recent epizootic, which is continuing in some areas of the Caspian Sea. Our work has shown that one hypothesized cause for the deaths, harmful (toxic) algal blooms, definitely did not play a role in the recent deaths.

This investigation was supported by the World Bank through a donation by the Japanese Consultant Trust Fund, and by the Offshore Kazakhstan International Operating Company. Details of the results may be obtained from the Emerging Infectious Diseases website at

For further information, please contact:

Dr. Susan Wilson, Tara Seal Research Centre, 7 Millin Bay Road, Portaferry, Northern Ireland BT22 1QD. E-mail: FAX: +44 (0)28 42728600

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