Marine Mammals to Humans


Message: 1  UKCETNET
   Date: Fri, 22 Feb 2002 20:49:34 -0500
   From: Andy Horton <Glaucus@hotmail.com>
Subject: Stranded Cetaceans & Human Disease


Can anybody provide me with the information or direct me to the source
material &/or incidences of transfer of diseases/pathogens between marine
mammals, especially baby seals and stranded dolphins and human beings?

It is OK saying don't touch, but if the query comes back WHY?

As far as I have been able to work out is that the variety of the possible
diseases is limited to bacterial infections and in number the number of
diseases is likely to be less than encounters with pet dogs.

However, the suspicion is maybe that stranded cetaceans are sometimes
already ill before they become stranded, so a natural wariness tends me not
to touch. Also, if the dolphin or porpoise has been dead for some time, it
is apt to be a bit smelly.

As some of the known possibilities occur when bacteria enters an open
wound, people with cuts and abrasions should be extra careful. All this is
book reading and I would be interested in any known examples.

Fish and invertebrate animals have been responsible for human pain and
disease, notably weevers, jellyfish, sea anemones, diatoms, hydroids,
stingrays, from physical interaction, which in these cases being stung. I
have excluded the illnesses caught by eating shellfish.

Drowning still remains the greatest hazard.  I still have not worked out
whether the shore is more dangerous for youngsters than crossing the road
to get there in the first place.

One danger that is often overlooked on the shore is the film of algae and
bacteria etc. that forms when freshwater means saltwater at mid-tide level
and above and can turn harmless rocks and steps into treacherous slippery
terrain where it is impossible to stand up even on a level surface. I think
this edges the shore and jetties to be more dangerous than the roads.


Andy Horton.
><< ( ( ( ' >
British Marine Life Study Society  (formed 6 June 1990)

Marine Wildlife of the North-east Atlantic Ocean Group
Group Home:  http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/Glaucus

><< ( ( ( ' >


Hi Andy

Marine mammals carry a number of potentially harmful, zoonotic
diseases, transmissable to humans, in addition to physical injuries
which can be inflicted.

Strains of a Brucella species have been isolated from marine mammals
and serological surveys suggest that exposure is widespread in seals
in British coastal waters. The species has caused headaches,
lassitude and severe sinusitus in one research worker (Brew et al.,
1999). Other potential zoonoses include seal pox (occasionally
causing painful nodules on the fingers of handlers) and Salmonella. A
severe, painful bacterial infection associated with bite
wounds, "seal finger", is also a hazard for handlers. Mycoplasma
species have been implicated in its aetiology.

(Brew, S.D., Perret, L.L., Stack, J.A., MacMillan, A.P. & Staunton,
N.J. (1999). Human exposure to Brucella recovered from a sea mammal.
Veterinary Record 144: 483).

Ensuring the health and safety of people participating in rescue
attempts is of paramount importance, particularly as the fate of
rescued animals is at present unknown. As you state, rightly so,
there is currently little information available on this subject.
Marine mammal rescue attempts can last for several hours and result
in close, prolonged contact with the stranded animal. Many of the
infectious diseases that may be acquired from these mammals are
rarely encountered in humans and often have vague, non-specific
clinical findings that develop slowly over a period of time. The
causative organisms may not be culturable using routine diagnostic
microbiological methods. Such infections can be associated with
significant morbidity and may require prolonged treatment with
antibiotics.With this in mind, I am currently in the process of co-
authoring a medical paper reviewing this. The purpose of the intended
review is to heighten awareness of infectious diseases that might be
acquired during exposure to marine mammals, to describe the clinical
and microbiological features of these infections and to suggest
methods for risk reduction.

Hope to have this paper under submission within the next month or so

Hope this helps

Best wishes


Dr Kevin Robinson
Director, Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit

Hi again Andy

Corpses present all sorts of additional hazards, and the risks of
bacterial infection from handling dead animals are obviously
compounded! Throughout the UK there are authorities responsible for
deceased marine mammals (e.g. the Scottish Agricultural College in
Scotland - see http://www.crru.org.uk/strandings.htm for full contact
details for whom a dead cetacean should be reported to. We also have
the new Marine Animal Coalition Scottish Strandings Poster here
downloadable as a pdf file. This gives very good public advice on
what to do and who to call etc). Members of the public should report
the carcass to the relevant authorities and secure the carcass if
possible above the high water mark, making exact notes on its
location with reference to maps or local features. If the carcass is
moved, however, this is where most care should be exercised.

Ideally, disposable protective clothing should be worn i.e. face
mask, disposable gloves, overalls etc, but if in doubt keep away (and
particularly keep children and animals clear). Unrecovered carcasses
presenting an environmental hazard should indeed be reported to the
council/environmental health. The carcass should be recovered and
removed from an area if it presents a hazard, as valiant attempts to
bury the animal are usually undone by the tide...

Any tarpaulin etc used should be thoroughly disinfected with a strong
veterinary disinfectant (include yourself in this process too!)

I am sure I can sort you out some pictures when I am back in the

We deal with a lot of seals up here in Scotland, and seal rescue now
forms a very core part of the British Divers Marine Mammal Medic
courses we teach here. If you haven't already taken the course, I
would suggest you get in touch with the guys down there (see
http://www.bdmlr.org.uk/pages/training.html) - you will learn a great



Director, Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit
National Strandings Coordinator, BDMLR Scotland

Hi Andy, I belong to CRRU, And we take great care when handle cetaceans They
carrie ,I.e Bacterial disease, pneumonia,
peritonitis,hepatitis,gastroenteritis, meningitis,septicaemia,There is a
long list and we have to were suits and gloves & face visor,For more
info,ring 01261851696 or go to CRRU web site,Derek

Hi Andy,More info,Parasitic disease, e.g. lungworm.  Viral disease, e.g.

Ensure volunteers are not in the water for long periods and are wearing
protective clothing (preferably drysuits or survival suits), and that they
can work safely in the conditions.  Remember that hypothermia is a real risk
for people in the water, regardless of the season.  No pregnant women should
handle cetaceans because it is a danger to the baby.

Derek Day
Sender: derekday42@hotmail.com


Dear Andy,

Am not sure whether this is what you are after but several years ago there
was an incident on Skomer when a seal, entangled in a netting was de-netted.
During the operation a contract staff member and a volunteer received what
were thought minor wounds and developed what they termed "seal finger".
One, the volunteer made an insurance claim against the Trust.  I was at
Trust HQ at the time though my memory is a bit hazy on the details.  I could
probably find out more if required.

Best Wishes

David Saunders (still on Pembrokeshire coast)
From: "islandnaturalist" <islandnaturalist@tesco.net>

From:  "Jo Hodgkins" <jojohodgkins@h...>
Date:  Mon Feb 25, 2002  1:20 pm
Subject:  Re: [UKCetnet] Digest Number 565


Re. stranded cetaceans and human disease, this comes from an English Nature
Advice note published in 1996 (Downie, A. (1996). Marine Mammal Strandings:
Prevention of infection from disease. Advice note Mammals 9; Species
Conservation Handbook. English Nature.)and is based on a guidance note
published by MAFF in the same year on Brucellosis in seals and small
cetaceans. It may have been superceded, so you might want to check recent
guidance with DEFRA:

"K Meldrum (Chief Veterinary Officer, MAFF) staes that in 1994 the Scottish
Agricultural College Veterinary Services Laboratory in Inverness had
reported the isolation of Brucella species from the internal organs of
common seals, harbour porpoises and dolphins taken from waters around
Scotland. Since then, serological screening of sea mammals from other
locations confirms that infection is present in marine mammals around the
coast of Great Britain.

The marine strain can infect humans as one of the scientists investigating
the diseases became infected in the course of routine laboratory procedures.
The individual concerned showed transient pyrexia, flu-like symptoms and
sinusitis, but after antibiotic treatment made a full recovery. The route
of transmission is not known for certain but it is possible that infection
was transmitted by the production of aerosols from live culture of the

Hope that is useful

Jo Hodgkins


Hi all/Andy

I don't know a great deal about human/dolphin disease and this is an
area I have looked into in the pass without great success. In my
dealing with stranded sea mammals I find the best approach is to take
all possible precausions regardless.

Diseases that can be passed from animals to humans 'Zoonosis' appear
to be only generally mentioned when it comes to cetaceans.

There is as you say an obvious risk from stranded animals, both dead
or alive. This was why we had to turn down voluntary help from the
Brighton Volunteer Bureau during the recent dead strandings locally
and like various other organisations emphasised that dead stranding
need to be reported but that under no circumstances should they be

Cuts, no matter how small in human skin can be a route for infection
(people handling seals regularly risk a disease called 'seal finger'
or 'blubber finger' (especially with seal hunters) which usually
infected through a small cut. The danger of infection from a similar
infection of a live dolphin is also a possibility.

Another danger, particularly associated with live stranded cetaceans,
but also a potential problem with close association with any cetacean
is breathing in the air from a dolphin or whales 'blow'. Respiratory
infection could be passed this way. When attending live strandings a
face mask should be part of the standard equipment.
Who is to know wither a dolphin encountered in the sea has the early
stages of a respiratory infection. I would be interested to see if
more information is available of this, especially in regards to whale
watching tours that often bring cetaceans and humans in to very close
contact. It would be interesting to know if any consideration is made
in regards to disease problems either way. (obviously there is a very
wide range of operations within the whale watching industry)

Disease can be passed both ways, this has been learned in particular
with captive animals who appear to be very susceptible to human 'cold
and flu type' infections and even diseases such as chicken pox.

Generally, catching or spreading disease to between humans and
animals and visa versa is something many people appear not to give a
second thought. The amount of times I have been at one event or
another (usually with our display stand) and you can see people
handling a snake and then going off the buy something to eat - with
no thought as to whether they should wash their hands first.

Stephen Savage
Sea Watch Foundation Sussex Co-ordinator
Rescue co-ordinator - Southern Marine Life Rescue


I guess you may know this already but the main risk from seals and, perhaps other marine mammals, is seal finger or crayfish-handlers disease. This, as far as I know, is caused by a mix of bacteria from the seals mouth which infects human bone tissue. If left untreated or if misdiagnosed and treated wrongly, the hand and arm can flare up in massive swelling and result in loss of the limb. It is truly horrendous to look at. Even in less severe cases there can be long term damage to bone tissue resulting in arthritis-like symptoms and joint stiffness.

The main problem in this disease is that it is very uncommon and doctors will often misdiagnose it. By the time the doctor has run through the list of normal treatments for diseases with similar symptoms, it is often too late to save the limb or permanent damage has been done. Therefore the onus is on the patient to inform the doctor that they have been in contact with marine wildlife and suspect that it is sealfinger (early symptoms are of severe and painful swelling in the joints near a bite or open wound, and this swelling doesn't improove musch with time).

The treatment is a course of v.strong doses of tetracycline. Improovement is rapid and the symtoms fade after a few days. Of course, as with all antibiotics the total course of treatments MUST be taken, if you stop taking the tetracycline as soon as the symptoms disappear it will most likely come back with a vengence.

I have had, and recovered, from sealfinger and it is a nasty but treatable disease. Prevention is either don't touch live or dead seal, or if you must, then WEAR GLOVES and cover any open cuts you have.

Just one example of the little nasty's waiting to jump out at us from the depths of the sea!


Dave Wall
Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.
Sender: iwdgweb@eircom.net

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