Could A New 'Seal Flu' Infect Humans?

By Amir Khan on July 31, 2012 9:33 AM EDT

Fur Seal
Hundreds of seals were killed by a new virus, dubbed the "seal flu." Researchers said the virus may be able to jump into humans. (Photo: Physiological and Biochemical )

From September 2011 to January 2012, over 160  harbor seals washed up along the New England coast either dead or dying. The majority were young -- approximately 6 months of age -- and while researchers investigated typical culprits such as starvation or attack, none seemed to fit.

Now, researchers say the seals were killed by a new strain of influenza that they most likely caught from birds. And if the virus has spread to mammals, researchers said there's a chance it can spread to humans as well.

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The new seal flu, dubbed H3N8, is a type of flu known as Influenza A, a category that contains the majority of animal flus. These viruses can intermix and mutate and jump species, which is how experts believe the swine flu pandemic came about.

Researchers said the virus could be using the seal flu as a mixing pot.

"The seals are acting as an intermediary -- they have receptors for both bird flu viruses and well as mammalian flu viruses, so you have a host in which this virus can adapt, evolve and become more mammalian in phenotype and more capable of causing disease in mammals," Ian Lipkin, a virus-hunter from Columbia University, told Discovery News. "That's when we really need to be concerned that it's going to be spreading into humans."

So far, it's unknown if the virus can infect humans, but if it does, and the seal flu is as deadly as the bird flu, it can be very dangerous.

The World Health Organization currently recognizes 586 H5N1 human infections, mostly in Asia, and 346 deaths, a fatality rate of 60 percent. The 1918 Spanish flu, which killed 50 million people over the course of a year, had a fatality rate of 3 percent. The seasonal flu has a fatality rate between 0.001 and 0.02 percent.

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