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NOAA prepares to vaccinate endangered monk seals

Associated Press

HONOLULU – Marine officials are readying for the possibility of a disease outbreak in Hawaiian waters, hoping to protect the dwindling Hawaiian monk seal population from morbillivirus. The disease has killed thousands of dolphins and seals around the world.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Monk Seal Research Program conducted a seal vaccination drill Wednesday through Friday on Oahu and in the Northwest Islands, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

Only 1,100 endangered Hawaiian monk seals remain, leaving the species at risk of being wiped out if the outbreak spreads.

Participants the NOAA drill considered several scenarios, such as whether to vaccinate a seal with a hook in its mouth. They also demonstrated the vaccination procedure for the media, using a 16- to 18-gauge needle attached to a large pole and plunged into the seal’s muscles.

No seals were actually vaccinated during the drill.

The Monk Seal Research Program’s lead scientist, Dr. Charles Littnan, said the drill was similar to those simulating a response to natural disasters. All logistical needs must be in place, he explained, and supplies must be at the ready.

The drills measured how quickly teams could vaccinate and how long it would take them to get across the island, said Littnan.

“We’ve surveyed all the beaches and hundreds of seals across the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands,” he said. “They were incredibly successful in teaching us some important lessons.”

Morbillivirus has killed tens of thousands of seals in Europe since the 1980s and has been detected in seals in the northeastern United States, according to NOAA.

Hawaiian monk seals are particularly vulnerable to the disease because they don’t have antibodies for morbillivirus. It could be brought to Hawaiian waters by marine animals like whales, which move large distances, said NOAA Fisheries contract veterinarian Dr. Michelle Barbieri.

She said the disease could also be transmitted by close contact with dogs carrying distemper, a form of morbillivirus.

“The threat continues to worry us,” Barbieri said. “The small population and limited genetic diversity makes us worry.”

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