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Seal Flu Identified; Studied for Human Threat

Aug 1st, 2012

seal fluScientists are reporting a new strain of flu virus found in harbor seals which can threaten human and animal health.

The study, published in the journal of the American Society for Microbiology mBio, has found a new strain that can potentially harm humans. Known as H3N8 flu, or the seal flu, the virus was identified to be the cause of harbor seal deaths in New England late last year.

The newly identified virus may have evolved from one that has been circulating in North American birds since 2002. The strain was discovered after researchers performed autopsies on New England harbor seals. Five seal deaths were found to have been caused by flu infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the H5N1 virus, known to be the most dangerous type of birdflu in humans, caused 607 cases of infection.

The new strain has undergone mutations which enabled it to live in mammals. Furthermore it can cause more severe symptoms and can be transmitted more easily. The virus can destroy a protein found in human lungs.

The search for viral genes in seal tissue was led by Simon Anthony, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity.

Researchers identified the H3N8 virus within 24 hours of investigation. This flu subtype has been documented to cross from birds to dogs and horses since 1960.

After finding high concentrations of flu genes in the seals’ airways, scientists concluded that the virus definitely caused the seal deaths.

“What we fear is that it would allow the virus to persist within the seal population,” said Dr. Anthony who voiced concern about the possible implications. “And if it persists, who knows what other changes may accumulate over time?”

“If it adapts better to mammal hosts, it may well start to move into humans,” said W. Ian Lipkin, study author and director of the Center for Infection and Immunity. “This is clearly a virus for which we need some surveillance.”

Seals could be the aquatic eqiuvalent of pigs, according to Dr. Lipkin, noting that pigs can be infected by bird flu and mammal flu simultaneously. This combination gives rise to new hybrid strains.

Source: Health Insurance News

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