NOAA Prepares for Hawaiian Monk Seal Vaccinations

Jul 22, 2015

Credit Flickr / Geordie Mott

Measles is a virus often associated with children. But a form of measles could threaten one of the state’s critically endangered marine mammals. And that’s got officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration jumping into action. HPR’s Molly Solomon reports.

Armed with a 16-gauge needle attached to a long pole, NOAA Fisheries Veterinarian Michelle Bar­bi­eri, demonstrates how to vaccinate a monk seal. She takes a step forward and aims the pole at the seal’s gluteal muscles. After jabbing the needle into its behind, she quickly releases the vaccine and backs away.

This scenario played out with an artificial monk seal used for practice. Marine officials have been conducting a three-day drill to prepare for the possibility of morbillivirus, more commonly known to humans as measles. The disease has already wiped out tens of thousands of seals in Europe and has been detected in the northeastern United States. Scientists worry it could prove fatal if it reaches the islands.

“It’s a disease that’s highly lethal for marine mammals,” said Charles Littnan, the lead scientist for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. “It could be catastrophic for the population.” Littnan said with only 1,100 monk seals left, even losing half the population could make it so that the species could never recover. “It could be the death blow to the population,” said Littnan.

The risk for Hawaiian Monk Seals stretches beyond just the small species size. Their blood also lacks the antibodies for morbillivirus. Littnan says pair that with their low genetic diversity and you get a very vulnerable population. “For monk seals, one seal is very similar to another,” Littnan explains. “So there is a good chance that if it’s highly infectious and lethal in one seal, it’s going to be highly infectious and lethal in all of them.” 

Littnan compared the three-day drill to similar preparedness exercises performed by the state for emergency disasters. And while no seals were actually vaccinated this time, Littnan says he expects to have treatments ready to go in the near future.