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The Role of Immunotoxic Environmental Contaminants in Facilitating the Emergence of Infectious Diseases in Marine Mammals

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A series of high profile outbreaks of newly described diseases in humans, domestic animals and wildlife has attracted widespread interest in the topic of Emerging Infectious Diseases (EIDs). Marine mammals are no exception: since 1987 several mass mortalities have been observed following infection with viruses previously undescribed in the populations or species in question. As with terrestrial examples, some of these outbreaks have followed either migrations associated with large-scale ecological changes or the introduction of virus from domestic animals. However, marine mammals warrant special concern in the context of emerging infectious diseases: they typically occupy high trophic levels and can therefore be highly contaminated with immunotoxic chemicals. Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), including polychlorinated -biphenyls (PCBs), dibenzo- p -dioxins (PCDDs), -dibenzofurans (PCDFs) and related compounds, are demonstrated immunotoxicants in laboratory animals, as well as marine mammals. Immunotoxic contaminants may represent a factor that facilitates disease emergence, and may lead to the creation of susceptible "reservoirs" for new pathogens in contaminated marine mammal populations. The factors underlying the emergence and exchange of pathogens among marine mammals, domestic animals, and humans demand multidisciplinary study and invite regulatory and conservation scrutiny. The complexity of this issue may be best addressed through an integrated human and ecological risk assessment framework.

Keywords: contaminants; disease; emergence; immunotoxicity; marine mammals

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Institute of Ocean Sciences, Contaminant Sciences Section, P.O. Box 6000, Sidney BC V8L 4B2, Canada;voice): 250-363-6806, Tel(fax): 250-363-6807;, Tel: (, Email:

Publication date: 2002-04-01

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