New 'seal flu' outbreak could pose threat to humans

A type of bird flu mutated to be highly deadly in New England harbor seals

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Published: Tuesday, July 31 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

This September 2011 photo, provided Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011 by New England Aquarium shows a harbor seal in distress, which created a pattern in the sand by repeatedly turning in circles on an unspecified beach in New Hampshire. Scientists said Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011, an influenza virus similar to one found in wild birds, but never before seen in seals, has been linked to the spate of harbor seal deaths during the fall along the northern New England shores.

New England Aquarium, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

Our take: After 162 harbor seals were found dead last winter along the New England coast, scientists have found that they had a new mutation of the influenza A virus, which started as the bird flu and turned into something completely new.

Over the past few years, bird flu and swine flu outbreaks have harmed wide swaths of global populations — now scientists are warning that a new flu that developed in seals off the New England coast could pose a human threat.

Last winter, officials found 162 dead harbor seals in what was then thought to be a pneumonia outbreak. But a new investigation by Columbia University researchers has found that the dead seals had a new mutation of the influenza A virus. The virus started as avian, or bird flu, but the mutations may have created something new altogether.

"Once it moves into seals, it becomes seal flu," says Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection & Immunity at Columbia University.

Read more about New 'seal flu' outbreak could pose threat to humans on US News.

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