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Risk of avian flu among Hawaiʻi marine mammals is low, scientists say

RM90 exploring on the beach around naupaka plants (Hawaiian native plant).
Hawaii Marine Animal Response
RM90 exploring on the beach around naupaka plants (Hawaiian native plant).

The latest highly virulent strain of avian flu appears to have jumped from birds to sea creatures. A dolphin in Florida has tested positive for the virus, and so has a porpoise in Sweden.

Michelle Barbieri leads the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She says the risk to Hawaiʻi’s marine mammals is low, and scientists across the state have good surveillance in place for new outbreaks of diseases.

Avian flu isn’t the only disease on their radar. Scientists vaccinate monk seals against a morbillivirus, which causes measles in humans and can be deadly to seals.

"The program here at NOAA is the first in the world to launch and implement a vaccination program on a free-ranging marine mammal species at the population level. So we've been doing this since 2016, and monk seals line up to get their shots, they get two shots about three to five weeks apart," she told The Conversation.

"We've been really successful at you know, we don't necessarily vaccinate every single monk seal. But we are aiming to keep enough immunity within the population to prevent the catastrophic effects of an outbreak of that disease," Barbieri said.

So far, wildlife veterinarians have vaccinated nearly half of Hawaiʻi’s monk seal population against morbillivirus.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Sept. 8, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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