Thursday, October 13, 2016

Herpesviridae in marine turtles

This blog is supposed to be dedicated to stories about HUMAN viral pathogens, but sometimes stories about animal pathogens can teach us new things about the microbes that harm us.

This year in the Florida Keys, the US’s largest turtle rescue and rehabilitation facility has had a record number of patients.  There has been an outbreak of fibropapillomatosis (FP) in the Keys’ population of marine turtles this year, which causes tumors and can be fatal. The virus, likely Chelonid herpesvirus 5 (ChHV5) is in the same family, herpesviridae, as many human pathogens, such as herpes simplex-1 virus and chickenpox (varicella-zoster virus). This disease isn’t unique to the Key’s; there have been similar outbreaks in Australia and Hawaii. While the symptoms are similar to those that affect humans, this virus’s host range is specific to marine turtles, such as green and loggerhead turtles. This outbreak is all the more concerning because many of these turtles are on the endangered species list.

The current outbreak has been so bad this year that the rescue hospital is having trouble keeping up with all of the patients. The increasing numbers of turtles with these life-threatening papillomas could be a result of the rebounding numbers of marine turtles, but veterinarians count global warming and pollution among contributing causes as well.  One study found that a high prevalence of disease was associated with areas of reduced water quality.  Although a causal link has not been established, many studies have found a relationship between anthropogenic pollution and FP.

As sea temperatures rise and other effects of global warming manifest themselves in the ocean and elsewhere, emerging viruses and virulent viruses are expected to increase in prevalence. This is especially true for marine mammals, but we may see similar outcomes in the future for human pathogens.

-Katy Graham


“Sea turtles with tumors fill Florida hospital.” AFP / Powered by (16 Feb 2016).

K. Jones et al. “A review of fibropapillomatosis in Green turtles (Chelonia mydas).” The Veterinary Journal 212 (2016) 48–57.

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