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Vet Pathol. 1997 Jul;34(4):288-95.

Histologic, immunohistochemical, and polymerase chain reaction studies of bottlenose dolphins from the 1987-1988 United States Atlantic coast epizootic.

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  • 1Department of Veterinary Pathology, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, DC 20306-6000, USA.


Tissues from 95 bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) that died during the 1987-1988 US Atlantic coast epizootic and 11 bottlenose dolphins that died along the Atlantic coast prior to 1987 were examined histologically and immunohistochemically. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing was performed on 36 of the epizootic and all of the pre-1987 cases. Epizootic cases had syncytia and rare intranuclear and intracytoplasmic inclusion bodies within lung, lymph node, and spleen. Lymphoid depletion was present in lymph node, spleen, and gut-associated lymphoid tissue of epizootic cases. Pre-1987 cases did not have these pulmonary and lymphoid lesions. A larger percentage of epizootic than pre-1987 cases had bacterial and/or fungal infections (primarily pneumonias), pulmonary and lymphoid tissue histiocytosis, mucocutaneous ulcers, and evidence of negative energy balance. Immunohistochemically, 49/95 (52%) epizootic dolphins were positive for morbilliviral antigen. Morbilliviral antigen was detected in lung, lymph node, spleen, thymus, skin, tongue, esophagus, liver, pancreas, gastrointestinal tract, urinary bladder, oviduct, and mammary gland by immunohistochemistry. PCR testing identified morbilliviral RNA in 35/36 (97%) epizootic cases tested. Neither morbilliviral antigen nor morbilliviral RNA were detected in pre-1987 cases. Histologic, immunohistochemical, and PCR results provide strong evidence that morbillivirus infection was the primary cause of the 1987-1988 bottlenose dolphin epizootic.

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