VIRUS REACHES THE UK - 15th August 2002

A virus that has killed thousands of seals across northern Europe has reached Britain, wildlife experts said Tuesday.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Animals said examinations of five dead seals that washed up on the coast of eastern England two weeks ago indicated they had the phocine distemper virus.

In 1988 an epidemic of the virus killed 18,000 common seals, half the population in northern Europe.

The disease reappeared in May on the Danish island of Anholt, the place where the 1988 epidemic began. It has killed several thousand animals along the coast of northern Europe from Norway to France.

The disease, which does not affect humans, spreads rapidly because seals travel hundreds of miles (kilometers) within a few days.

The virus usually causes severely matted eyes, runny noses and pneumonia, spreading from animal to animal through direct contact with body fluids or by scratching, clawing or biting.

It attacks the seals' immune systems, leaving them susceptible to infections such as pneumonia and respiratory problems. Mortality rates can vary from 5 percent to 60 percent.

The British government said it was establishing a 250,000 pound project to find out more about the disease. It has set up a telephone line for people to report seals they find washed up along the coast.

This is a particularly nasty virus for which there is no known cure, said Animal Welfare Minister Elliot Morley. This outbreak, as terrible as it is, does provide us with a chance to learn more about the virus and hopefully find a way of stopping it in the future.

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