An epizootic of morbillivirus infection killed thousands of common seals (Phoca vitulina) in European seas in 1988. Most of the affected seals had respiratory signs and the main post mortem finding was acute pneumonia. The histopathological changes were similar to those of canine distemper. Six common porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) found stranded on the coast of Northern Ireland in late 1988 had similar lesions. Morbillivirus infection also killed several thousand Siberian seals (Phoca siberica) in Lake Baikal in 1987 and 1988. A morbillivirus (phocine distemper virus) has been isolated from affected seals in several European countries and studies of the antigenicity of the virus indicate that it has several unique epitopes that distinguish it from the other known morbilliviruses. Biochemical studies of the viral proteins, RNA and nucleotide sequence confirm that it is a new morbillivirus. There is seroepizootiological evidence of morbillivirus infection in Greenland harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus), ringed seals (Phoca hispida) and Dutch common seals several years before the 1988 epizootic. Antibodies to a morbillivirus have also been found in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) from the eastern coast of the USA. Further studies are required to determine whether these sea mammal populations have been infected with phocine distemper virus.
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