Morbillivirus Infections in Aquatic Mammals: A Brief Overview


Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Teramo, Teramo, Italy


Since 1987, at least eight morbillivirus infection (MI) epidemics have caused mass mortality of several free-living pinniped and cetacean populations around the world. The responsible agents, all belonging to the genus Morbillivirus (family Paramyxoviridae), have been characterized as either ‘canine distemper virus’ strains, infecting pinnipeds, or as three new morbilliviruses, namely ‘phocid (phocine) distemper virus’ , ‘porpoise morbillivirus’ and ‘dolphin morbillivirus’ . The last two agents are currently gathered under the common denomination of ‘cetacean morbillivirus’. At post-mortem examination, a commonly occurring macroscopic lesion is represented by more or less severe bilateral pneumonia, with consolidation, congestion and oedema of both lungs, which fail to collapse. Histologically, a non-suppurative broncho-interstitial pneumonia, characterized by type II pneumocyte hyperplasia and by formation of endobronchial, endobronchiolar and endoalveolar ‘Warthin–Finkeldey type’ syncytia, as well as a multifocal, non-suppurative encephalitis, associated with a severe and generalized lymphoid tissue depletion, are common pathological findings. Furthermore, eosinophilic viral inclusions are often detected, at both the intracytoplasmic and intranuclear level, within bronchial and bronchiolar epithelial, pulmonary syncytial, neuronal and other cell types. These inclusions, along with lymphoid and other cellular elements, are often found to be immunohistochemically positive for morbillivirus antigen. Among the still debated, or even controversial issues regarding MI in sea mammals, the one related to the origin of their causative agents is of particular concern. Another intriguing issue regards the synergistic effects, if any, associated with chronic exposure to a number of environmental pollutants, such as organochlorines and heavy metals. In fact, it is also unknown whether and how these chemicals contribute towards modulating the pathogenic and pathogenetic activity primarily displayed by sea mammal morbilliviruses.