Infectious disease that killed Hawaii dolphin raises concern over possible spread to other marine mammals

Local News

HONOLULU (KHON2) — An investigation into the 2018 death of a Fraser’s dolphin that was stranded on Maui has lead to an alarming discovery for a team of researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM).

The researchers have discovered a novel strain of morbillivirus, a marine mammal disease responsible for deadly outbreaks among dolphins and whales worldwide. The UHM Health and Stranding Lab conducted a necropsy, also known as an animal autopsy, confirming the virus contributed to the dolphin’s death.

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“Morbillivirus is an infectious disease that has been responsible for mass mortalities of dolphins and whales worldwide. It is related to human measles and smallpox,” said UH Health and Stranding Lab Director Kristi West.

Two novel morbillivirus strains were previously discovered in dolphins in Western Australia and Brazil that led to unusual mortality events with at least 50 dolphins dying in Australia, and more than 200 dolphins dying in Brazil.

“The 2018 stranding of the Fraser’s dolphin revealed that we have a novel and very divergent strain of morbillivirus here in Hawaiian waters that we were previously unaware of,” continued West.

Discovery of the novel strain found in Hawaii has led to various independent tests to look further into the role of the distinct morbillivirus in the pathology of the Fraser’s dolphin.

The lab noted that it is only able to recover less than 5% of the dolphins and whales that die in Hawaiian waters, which makes detecting disease outbreaks difficult.

The researchers say the next step in determining if the virus is circulating in the Central Pacific is to focus on antibody testing of Hawaiian dolphins and whales.

“It’s also significant to us here in Hawaii because we have many other species of dolphins and whales, about 20 species that call Hawaii home, that may also be vulnerable to an outbreak from this virus.” explained West.

Similar to other viruses, a vaccine could be one of the ways to prevent further setbacks.

West said, “This finding does provide further support NOAA’s Monk Seal vaccine program. So there’s an ongoing effort that was initiated several years now, to vaccinate our endangered Hawaiian monk seals for morbillivirus.”

To read the full published report, click here.

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