During a recent disease outbreak among harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) in the North and Baltic seas, more than 17,000 animals have died. The clinical symptoms and pathological findings were similar to those of distemper in dogs. Based on a seroepizootiological study, using a canine distemper virus (CDV) neutralization assay, it was shown that CDV or a closely related morbillivirus (phocid distemper virus-PDV) was the primary cause of the disease. The virus was isolated in cell culture from the organs of dead seals and characterized as a morbillivirus by serology (immunofluorescence neutralization and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays) and by negative contrast electron microscopy. Experimental infection of SPF dogs resulted in the development of mild clinical signs of distemper and CDV-neutralizing antibodies. The disease was reproduced in seals by experimental inoculation of organ material from animals that had died during the outbreak. However, seals that had been vaccinated with experimental inactivated CDV vaccines were protected against this challenge. This fulfilled the last of Koch's postulates, confirming that the morbillivirus isolated from the seal organs, was the primary cause of the disease outbreak. The recent demonstration of the presence of a similar virus in Lake Baikal seals (Phoca sibirica), which infected these Siberian seals 1 year before the northwestern European seals were infected, raises new questions about the origin of this infectious disease in pinnipeds.

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doi.org/10.1016/0378-1135(90)90165-R, hdl.handle.net/1765/3401
Veterinary Microbiology
Erasmus MC: University Medical Center Rotterdam

Osterhaus, A., Groen, J., Spijkers, I., Broeders, H. W. J., Uytdehaag, F., de Vries, P., … Vedder, L. (1990). Mass mortality in seals caused by a newly discovered morbillivirus. Veterinary Microbiology, 23(1-4), 343–350. doi:10.1016/0378-1135(90)90165-R