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Naturally Occurring Virus Likely Cause in Dolphin Deaths along East Cost

NOAA has declared an Unusual Mortality Event due to the deaths of hundreds of dolphins off the East Coast, and announced that cetacean morbillivirus - which is similar to measles in humans or canine distemper in dogs - is the likely cause of the deaths. Since July 9, dead or dying dolphins have washed up along New Jersey's coastline.

The virus was behind a similar die-off in 1987-1988. NOAA continues to investigate if any other factors are contributing to this summer's die-off.

To date, NOAA has determined that a number of dolphins tested are either suspected or confirmed positive for morbillivirus. Results are available on NOAA's web site: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/mmume/midatldolphins2013_results.htm

Morbilliviruses are naturally occurring pathogens in marine mammal populations, and because these viruses suppress the immune system, many animals ultimately die from secondary infections, according to NOAA Fisheries. Not all dolphins exposed to morbillivirus will die from these infections, but a large proportion may not survive.

Morbilliviruses are usually spread through the air or direct contact between animals, including between mothers and young. Cetacean morbillivirus affects the lungs, brain and immune system of dolphins, causing illness and death. While this virus can easily spread among dolphin populations since the animals are highly social, it is not infectious to humans.

The NJ AHDL is assisting in investigation of dolphin deaths: http://nj.gov/agriculture/news/press/2013/approved/press130829.html