In 1988 and 2002, two major phocine distemper virus (PDV) outbreaks occurred in harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) in north-western European coastal waters, causing the death of tens of thousands seals. Here we investigated whether PDV is still circulating among seals of the Dutch coastal waters and whether seals have protective serum-antibodies against PDV. Therefore seal serum samples, collected from 2002 to 2012, were tested for the presence of PDV-neutralizing antibodies. Antibodies were detected in most seals in 2002 and 2003 while after 2003 antibodies were detected only in seals less than two month-old and adult seals that probably had survived the 2002 PDV-epizootic. We estimated the current proportion of seals with antibodies against PDV at 11%. These findings suggest that at present the vast majority of seals are not immune to PDV infection. PDV re-introduction in this area may cause a major epizootic with infection of >80% and mass-mortality of >50% of the population.

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Emerging Microbes and Infections
Department of Virology

Bodewes, R., Morick, D., van de Bildt, M., Osinga, N., García, A. R., Contreras, G. J. S., … Osterhaus, A. (2013). Prevalence of phocine distemper virus specific antibodies: Bracing for the next seal epizootic in North-Western Europe. Emerging Microbes and Infections, 2. doi:10.1038/emi.2013.2