Rumor: East Coast dolphin deaths tied to deadly virus

Winter the dolphin swims at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Fla.

More than 130 bottlenose dolphins have washed ashore on the Northeast coast and three have tested positive for an extremely contagious marine-mammal virus.

UPDATE: Morbillivirus, the deadly, measles-like virus initially suspected of causing the massive dolphin die-off along the East Coast, has now been officially confirmed as the cause of the marine mammals' deaths by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA spokesperson Maggie Mooney-Seus told MSN News that genetic testing has linked morbillivirus to the many of the dead dolphins. As of Wednesday, 364 dolphins had been found washed ashore on East Coast beaches, with the majority (193) being found on Virginia's coastline.

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UNCONFIRMED:So far only three of the dolphins have tested positive for morbillivirus, and officials say more testing is needed to determine if the disease in the 'smoking gun.'

A gruesome scene has greeted many beachgoers on the Northeast Coast this summer, as 136 bottlenose dolphins have washed ashore there, as of Aug. 9 — a number seven times higher than marine officials are used to seeing. And after three of the dolphins tested positive for a deadly and highly contagious virus, worries are spreading that the same outbreak that devastated dolphins in the late 1980s has come back.

On Aug. 8, the dolphin deaths along the East Coast were officially declared an "unusual mortality event" by the federal government, a declaration that authorizes the large amount of funds needed to investigate the die-off. Three dolphins, all of which were found on beaches in New Jersey, tested positive for morbillivirus, a highly contagious pathogen among dolphins. In 1987 and 1988, morbillivirus was blamed for a massive die-off that saw more than 750 dolphins wash ashore along the East Coast.

Maggie Mooney-Seus, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told MSN News that despite the presence of morbillivirus in one of the animals that washed ashore, it's still unclear what, exactly, is to blame for the die-off.

"At this point we haven't ruled anything out," Mooney-Seus said. "It could be an anomaly, it could be just one animal that happened to have it, but it could be something that's more widely distributed among the population. ... We're certainly looking at morbillivirus, because it is a pathogen and it has been a cause of mortality in previous unusual mortality events we've had in this country."

Linda M. Candler, head of marketing at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, where many of the dead dolphins are being studied, told MSN News that while the morbillivirus found in dolphins isn't transferable to humans (humans have their own strain known as measles), people should still stay away from the animals if they see them on the beach.

Furthermore, people who come across the dolphins are urged to call NOAA's marine mammal stranding network at 1-866-755-6622.



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