The harbour seal, also known as common seal, is the seal that has been affected. Photo: Sam Lindh/Kamerareportage/TT
The harbour seal, also known as common seal, is the seal that has been affected. Photo: Sam Lindh/Kamerareportage/TT

Bird flu has killed thousands of seals

"A lot of seals missing"
2:39 min

The number of seals that have died along the Swedish west-coast this year is higher than previously thought. And now the National Veterinary Institute is sure that the deaths have been caused by a type of bird flu never found in seals before.

It was in April this year that reports of dead seals washing up on the shores along the west-coast started coming in. Recently, the estimated figure was 700 dead seals, but now the Swedish Veterinary Institute says it is more like 3000 seals that have died after they have been infected by bird flu off the coast of Sweden and Denmark. Susanne Viker

"We have flown over and seen that there are a lot of seals missing," said Susanne Viker, researcher at the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management. "We have also noticed that most seals don't wash up on the shores, they sink. That was a problem in the summer when we were looking for them, to try to take samples. You'd get a report about a sick or dead seal floating around, and you would hurry to get there, but it would have sunk before you arrived."

Three thousand dead seals is "quite a lot", says Susanne Viker, but not unheard of in the past.

In 1988 and 2005 there were more seals that died, she says. The first of those two, in 1988, was when Sweden had an election, which later became known as the "seal election" as the TV-pictures of dying seal cubs shook the nation. This was also the year that the Green Party first made it into parliament.

No such pictures seem to rattle the nation today, and the numbers of dead seals are also fewer. But there is still concern at the Swedish Veterinary Institute, as the researchers have been able to establish that it IS a bird flu virus that has infected the seals, first through contact with wild birds, then from seal to seal. And it is the first time that this virus has been found in seals. Samples from 100 seals show that one in ten carry the virus.

Interestingly, most of the dead seals have been found in the southern part of the west coast archipelago. It is worst outside Gothenburg and further south from that, while further north seals have been found to carry anti-bodies against the virus, meaning that they have been exposed to the disease, but have survived it.

These findings will now lead to more research, which will be co-ordinated with similar research in Germany and Denmark, which have also been affected.

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