Measles' Latest Victims Are Whales, CDC Says

Measles can cause illness and death, and not just in humans. The CDC reports on three dead whales that had the virus.

Measles virus is taking more than a human toll, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Morbillivirus, group of viruses that includes the organism that causes measles in humans, is also infecting and killing whales and dolphins.

To date there have been no known cases of the whale morbillivirus strain being transmitted to humans, but federal officials advise caution--such as staying away from beached marine mammals.

The CDC, in its April, 2016 Emerging Infectious Disease Journal published a letter from researchers in the Canary Islands, Spain who found the whale version of the virus was to blame for deaths of three pilot whales( similar to the one seen in the photo at left)

The animals washed up on the islands’ shores from January to May in 2015.

On necropsy the whales were found to have “supperative rhinitis, with clogged nasal passage by the accumulation of large quantity of purulent material.”

The animals, identified as short-finned pilot whales, also had ear infections and laryngitis, pneumonia, and tonsillitis.

Humans have a preventive vaccine, but developing one that could be given to marine mammals in the wild is challenging, perhaps impossible. The virus is spread from one marine mammal to another through breathing aerosolized droplets.

Other marine mammals are known to be susceptible to the morbillivirus group, but the recent study results “indicate that lethal infections are not as rare as previously believed.” Eva Sierra and colleagues at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Arucas, Canary Islands, Spain wrote in the published letter.

It is not clear whether human activity is playing a role in the infections, though global warming may be changing migratory patterns and exposing animals to new hazards.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a fact sheet on the virus and marine mammals. The agency also keep a running tally of dolphin strandings and their causes. Morbillivirus killed 273 dolphins found on the East Coast from 2013 to 2015, according to NOAA>

The NOAA report recommends that people stay away from dead beached whales, seals, and dolphins and that they keep their pets away from them too.

That includes not letting their dogs chew on the carcasses, NOAA warned. The morbillivirus causes distemper in canines.